Reforming government: Global perspectives

26 April 2014

Developed countries around the world have reached a day of fiscal reckoning, as a number of authors put it in Reform’s recent anthology, The next ten years. If one sentiment unified that collection it is that radical change is needed in the economy, government, public services, health, welfare and pensions, and the role of the individual. It’s either that or terminal decline. “Unless policy is re-focused on improving economic efficiency for the economy as a whole, and within the public sector,” wrote Rupert Darwall, “the big question facing Britain is whether Britain is going to have one lost decade or two.” In order to gain political support for tightening budgets, the Government must demonstrate success in improving the performance of public services – i.e. show it can do better with less.

Yet the Government is struggling to make real progress. Yesterday Reform held a roundtable lunch seminar with Alastair Levy, senior expert in government reform at McKinsey & Company, on the subject of “Reforming government: global perspectives”. Alastair has advised governments in over 30 countries on their reform programmes and published a number of articles, including Better for less: Improving public sector performance on a tight budget. Top politicians and civil servants, leading business people, and press, discussed lessons Britain can learn from its international counterparts on reforming government and implementing a coherent programme of change.

The event was held under the Chatham House rule. Alastair outlined some of the ways in which government leaders around the world have navigated the complexities of achieving far-reaching reform – and the need for multiple approaches to change to be deployed in parallel to make this happen. The ensuing discussion was held under the Chatham House rule.

Two broad themes emerged. One was broad agreement with and analysis of Alastair’s points, leading to concerns about how the UK stacks up in practice. Some argued that the Government consistently underestimates how hard reform is. Another concern was with the failure to formulate and stick to a clear and firm strategy, with an associated failure to prioritise (“pick your fights”), and to manage and be open and honest about the trade-offs and tensions (such as between local and national power and responsibility). While the data and transparency agenda was welcomed, some worried about accountable for delivery. Communications have confused people about whether saying something is the same as doing it.

The other broad theme was around Civil Service reform. The need for a stronger centre of government (the “tight” of “tight and loose”) is paramount in a time of radical reform. Ministers can only govern through the Civil Service and will do so better if the culture of the Civil Service is supportive of the reform effort. Ministers need to be clear about what the Civil Service is being asked to do so that it can be equipped and managed according to clear aims and objectives. Getting more for less – departments capable of leading major change while also being changed and reduced in size – requires a high-performance workforce with strengthened skills and capabilities. Reform has argued for years – and some around the table took this line – that the structure of the Civil Service needs to change so that civil servants are personally accountable for performance.
To finish on the structural point, this is Tony Blair writing in A Journey:

“I have described a journey. At first we govern with a clear radical instinct but without the knowledge and experience of where that instinct should take us in specific policy terms. In particular, we think it plausible to separate structures from standards, i.e. we believe that you can keep the given parameters of the existing public service system but still make fundamental change to the outcomes the system produces. In time, we realise this is wrong; unless you change structures, you can’t raise standards more than incrementally.”

Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Alastair Levy, senior expert in government reform at McKinsey & Company, on Monday 23 April 2012.

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