How to run a country

28 August 2014

The Coalition Government is implementing fiscal consolidation on an historic scale, and there is widespread agreement that consolidation will continue well into the next Parliament. Reform held a private roundtable to explore the challenges and the opportunities for reform of the machinery of government in the context of expected further budget reductions. This event was part of Reform’s major research programme on “How to run a country”.

The weight of the title and its subject matter was purposefully challenging; evidence suggests that people who run countries don’t do it as well as they should. In the UK, recent examples of this range from a lack of oversight that was a precursor to the banking crisis to a failure to dredge rivers, which contributed to the flooding experienced by some areas over the last few winters.

Despite the recognition of failures, governments continue to make the same mistakes. Cobb’s paradox, coined by Martin Cobb, CIO for the Secretariat of the Treasury Board of Canada, in 1995, asks “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?” With the potential consequences of failure increasing in significance, as a result of changing and growing populations, the need to address an unprecedented and increasingly complex demand for public services is urgent. No longer will slicing budgets suffice, transformational changes are needed and it has been suggested that it is people’s behaviour that should be the real focus of change.

Three key themes emerged from the discussion. The first was a need for transparency and accountability. A perception of insecurity and risk adversity are barriers to change for people; consistency, transparency and understanding are vital to address these concerns. The role of politics, to provide a context for reconciliation and a responsible governance system, could be a driver to achieve the changes that are needed; driving more transparent and accountable behaviours that in turn won’t let bad projects survive.

The second theme was incentives for change. It is well recognised that maintaining the status quo is easier than transformational change. The performance incentives for public servants are less likely to be salaries and more likely to be a sense of belonging and achievement in delivering social outcomes. The increasing proportion of politicians who have little management experience was also raised as a concern; the role of leadership is vital to ensure that change happens and that there is a sense of pride and ownership of tasks.

Thirdly it was noted that too often the Civil Service is focussed on policy rather than implementation, and grades rather than projects. If skills and successes are focussed on starting projects, there is a risk that successful project delivery is not a priority and that failure is not understood. This combination risks a structure that rewards wide rather than deep specialised experience. With people more transient than the work that they are doing, the workforce can be biased toward a short-term outlook on policy making rather than program delivery. This can lead to inconsistency and further ambiguity. More professionalism, including in project delivery, could encourage the longevity required to deliver outcomes.

According to UK military doctrine the first principle of war is: “selection and maintenance of the aim”; perhaps this principle has wider applicability across government. To achieve the required transformational change, real transparency, leadership and a longer term perspective by both government and Parliament are necessary. This Parliament has seen reform across the system but if fiscal consolidation is to be achieved, there is more to be done in the next. The machinery of government must put the “ends” back into the discussion of the “ways” and “means” to run a country, and effect transformational change.

A blog by Katy Sawyer, Researcher at Reform, following a roundtable seminar on the theme “Delivering fiscal responsibility: how to run a country” led by Richard Bacon MP, Member of the Public Accounts Committee and author of “Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it”.




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