How to run a country: a collection of essays

Richard Harries, Deputy Director, Reform

When it comes to the reform of our Civil Service, there is a pattern in British politics that has seen successive governments realising too late the scale of the challenge facing them. Tony Blair spoke of “the scars on my back” and of his frustration fighting “the forces of conservatism”. Francis Maude acknowledged last year that “despite the very best endeavours of many people”, the implementation of his Civil Service Reform Plan had been held back “by some of the very things that it was designed to address – weaknesses in capability, lack of clear accountability, and delivery discipline.”

At Reform we believe that a key part of the problem is the failure to think about the system of government as a whole, including the role played by Parliament, by ministers themselves and by other political actors (not least those in local government). This needs to change if the country is to move beyond the immediate challenges of fiscal consolidation and begin to implement the vital structural reforms that are needed to respond to demographic change and persistently low productivity.

These challenges are profound and they transcend the cut and thrust of everyday party politics. The reason the Coalition, just like New Labour before it, has struggled to deliver real reform is a reluctance to appreciate the scale of the problem it faces and an unwillingness to acknowledge that some of the answers might lie outside the Government. Yet, as the essays in this collection demonstrate, there is a breadth of knowledge that exists right across the political spectrum, amongst academics and amongst those with first-hand experience working on the frontline and at the most senior levels of public service delivery. It is not knowledge we lack. What we lack is the will to reform.

Britain is at a crossroads. The decisions taken by the next Government will determine the welfare of our citizens and our place in the world for decades to come. To make the right choices, our leaders must be supported by a system of governance designed for the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. A Parliament properly able to scrutinise legislation and hold the executive to account. A government freed from silo thinking, led by fewer ministers with clearer objectives. And a Civil Service with the flexibility, capability, confidence and mindset to take risks, embrace innovation, and deliver much more for much less. That is how to run a country.