Many ministers and civil servants enjoy a crisis. Some of the complexity of government falls away, diaries are cleared and – when things work well – teams come together with energy and a spirit of collaboration. Crises can bring a clarity of purpose that gets lost in the day-to-day trade-offs of governing in less fraught times.
Kate Bingham, the venture capitalist brought into lead the government’s vaccine taskforce, recently made headlines for her observations that the “machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia”, with Whitehall held back by “a culture of groupthink and risk aversion.” She is right to argue for reform, but successfully distilling the benefits of a crisis for more normal times will take more than her calls to embed scientific expertise, and change the recruitment, development and incentive structure for the civil service.
From the early days of the furlough and business support schemes, through to the success of the vaccination programme and less-heralded achievements like protecting prisoners from the virus, there have been rapid government successes that in normal times would seem remarkable. It helps that money is rapidly made available, also that ministers and their advisers are forced together to take quick collective decisions. Obstacles are easier to overcome and change happens rapidly when the dangers of inaction are clearly understood. Kate Bingham’s own experience leading the vaccine task force shows how this can succeed in government.
Of course many things in the pandemic did not go well, showing that permanently setting government to “crisis mode” is no guarantee of better results. There have been major failures on rushed decisions like setting up a centralised tracing programme, or delaying for too long like on the autumn/winter 2020 lockdown.
But an emergency does focus ministerial and civil service minds. And once the crisis recedes the urgency is lost. Political attention from ministers and the media moves on, talented but restless crisis junkies are attracted to the next burning issue, risk aversion creeps back and deadlines drift.
Bingham talked about moving “from wartime to peacetime” and the analogy is apt. Following the crisis phase of the pandemic the context changes completely. The skills that ministers and civil servants need shift from decisiveness and boldness to coalition-building, persuasion and getting value for money.
More risk-taking also means a change of mindset in ministers, who would need to tolerate the prospect of waste and embarrassment – as we have seen with dubious PPE contracts or ineffective tracing mechanisms. If you applied a crisis approach – without checks on value for money or testing whether policy changes work properly – to long term problems like taking action on climate change or “levelling up”, government programmes would too often fail, waste cash, be discredited and probably abandoned.
To adapt for peacetime without losing the benefits of the pandemic will require the government to do at least three things.
The first is to maintain a sense of mission and leadership. The government needs a cause and a clear direction to get the most out of its ministers and civil servants. While ongoing Covid uncertainty has seen Boris Johnson launch an accelerated vaccine booster campaign, the prime minister has not yet given a focus to the next phase of his premiership. “Levelling up” has the potential to inject momentum, but much hangs on the promised white paper expected before Christmas.
The second is to recognise that the context has changed. Applying Bingham’s “venture capital mindset” that was so successful for the vaccine taskforce during the pandemic will not work for normal business. Unlimited resources and a high appetite for risk are not the natural state of government. So ministers and permanent secretaries need to generate urgency around coalition-building, cross-departmental working and recruiting and developing creative policy talent, as well as scientific and digital experts. Giving institutions a direct mandate to invest in new research and innovation – like the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency – will help.
The third – a familiar Institute for Government theme – is to be clearer about who is accountable for what in government. The Declaration on Government Reform the prime minister and cabinet secretary published last summer promised a “review of models of accountability for decisions”. We will publish more on our ideas here soon, but one of the ways to ensure that civil servants are focused on results and feel a keen sense of urgency about making change happen is to describe the range of their responsibilities more tightly.
While the experience of the Covid crisis should make government better prepared for the next pandemic, it can also – through embracing reform in key areas – mean that it governs more effectively in less exceptional times.