• Opinion
  • September 18, 2019
  • 10 minutes
  • 1

Has Britain lost its reforming mojo?

Opinion: Britain was once a beacon for government innovation. That time is well behind us

This opinion article was written by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 


For nearly forty years the world has looked to Britain for ideas about how government should be run (and sometimes to see what new ideas they should avoid). Margaret Thatcher pioneered privatisation, deregulation, next steps agencies and many other things. John Major promoted citizens charters.

Blair and Brown promoted joined up government, delivery units, strategy units, choice in public services and social impact bonds. David Cameron promised and implemented open data and behavioural science.

But since 2015 this has all ground to a halt.

Part of the reason is the vast distraction of Brexit. But another reason is that very few ministers, and the most recent Prime Ministers — Theresa May and Boris Johnson — have shown little if any interest in how government operates.

There is no obvious guiding philosophy; no new ideas; no advocates or ambassadors. Their lack of interest is mirrored in the opposition. If there have been any serious speeches on how government might be run I missed them, a stark contrast with Labour before 1997 or the Tories before 2010 both of which hungrily sought out new governing ideas that they could use.

How to govern

Does it matter?

One view is that it doesn’t. Governments should be pragmatic. But I think this loss of national mojo is part of a broader problem that will almost certainly make government less effective in the future, and that has to do with the myopia of 21st century populism.

In various forms the ideas of populist nationalism now dominate governments across the world from the US and UK to Italy and India. It’s coming to look as significant a movement as those that brought social democracy in the 1940s, Thatcherism in the 1970s and 1980s, and a surge of centre-left governments in the 1990s.

But a great weakness of many of these governments is that they combine shrill argument and a kind of megaphone politics, with a reality of messy muddling through rather than decisive strategy. That formula is almost bound to disappoint.

Most of the coverage of these governments focus on what they say. Much less attention has been paid to the fact that this movement, unlike its predecessors, lacks any obvious vision for how government should work, beyond a general scepticism of elites and civil servants, and a predilection for twitter.

Whether or not you agree with what they’re trying to do, there are reasons to worry about how they’re doing it

The populists are right that bureaucracies often resist or slow down big ideas. But what they’ve missed is that bureaucracies generally work better if there is a clear vision, a guiding philosophy from which they can deduce how to behave.

Without a clear direction, they revert to muddling through, blizzards of erratic initiative, and a triumph of tactics over strategy — exactly what we appear to be seeing in the UK right now.

The shortsighted rulers

This blind spot amplifies a second feature of the new rulers: their shortened time horizons.

Most seem to live in an eternal present. This is in some ways an appropriate response to the social media age and certainly helps them keep their supporters in a state of fevered excitement. But it’s not good for the job of governing. Here the newer leaders reflect a more widespread shortening of time horizons that’s been apparent ever since the financial crash.

Theresa May’s government measured its decisions in days and weeks rather than decades, and Johnson’s government looks equally focused on what needs to be said or done to help it win an imminent election, with spending commitments that are all about propping up services now rather than investing for the long-term.

This month Nesta is publishing two contributions to encourage governments to be more aspirational

To the extent that there is a longer perspective its dominated by the past and nostalgia. The new rulers talk of making their nations great again, bringing things back, returning to a better yesterday. Their promises are deliberately designed to echo the past, like more bobbies on the beat rather than better use of data, or promising investment in the traditional physical manifestations of the provider state – schools, hospitals etc – rather than addressing big challenges like care or retraining.

Whether or not you agree with what they’re trying to do, there are reasons to worry about how they’re doing it, with a high likelihood that the quality of government will deteriorate; that fixes and bodges will prevail over serious solutions; and that we’ll be trapped in an unhealthy mix of exuberant rhetoric and a messy muddling through.

Setting a higher bar for government

What could they be doing differently? A government that was more interested in how to govern could learn from the most advanced ones around the world, which point in very different directions. Many (like Trudeau in Canada) are now deepening their commitment to experiment and evidence, which in the long run is the only way to get serious improvements in education, welfare or health.

Many (from Estonia to China) are taking data and collective intelligence seriously, recognising that this, the systematic orchestration of information and knowledge of all kinds, will be core to the governments of the future. Many (from Korea to Portugal) are experimenting with new relationships with citizens — in which they share responsibility with the state, committing their time and expertise alongside the professionals.

Many are finding new ways to engage the public in difficult issues – with Taiwan offering the most advanced model in vTaiwan, and Macron showing how “grands debats” can help turn around public opinion. And many are experimenting with new ways of managing systems change — collaborating with business and civil society on the big challenges like mental health or climate change.

This month Nesta is publishing two contributions to encourage governments to be more aspirational.

One is a handbook of government innovation that documents 20 proven methods of making government work better, all of which are being used to a greater or lesser extent around the world, and all of which have been used by Nesta in our work with dozens of national and local governments. The second is a book of visions, setting out what government could look like in a decade or two. Both are meant to be counters to lazy fatalism.

It may be fanciful to expect much attention to these new possibilities in a UK that is stuck in its own Groundhog day. It’s very rare to get any sense of these issues in the broadsheet media or the mainstream TV and radio, which report in excruciating detail on the latest twist and turn of the Brexit saga but get easily bored with any discussion of how government works.

But I hope that before long more politicians will see that there is a new common sense to be grasped, and that it’s not enough just to rail against the system or rely on rhetoric. Ultimately any politician, or political party, will be judged by how well they can steer the system and achieve results. The soundbites, by contrast, will be forgotten. — Geoff Mulgan

(Picture credit: the UK Prime Ministers Office)

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