Ed Straw: Seven ways to design a successful government

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I USED to believe in party politics as the means to a better world. Until I saw just how difficult and often impossible it is to get anything done from Westminster/Whitehall. Until I experienced the OK to the truly inept inside many public sector organisations. Until I saw New Labour being quite successful in its first half, and largely a waste of space in the second. Then, the coalition forming with good intentions but not a lot changing on the ground for the better. Even if their politics were to my taste, I had long wondered why governments disappoint, fail, deceive, bend to powerful, hidden lobbies and more generally not earn their keep.

So, what do you do? Put up with the vote and go away system – see you in four or five years? Protest vote? Seek independence from another high-cost self-serving bureaucracy the European Commission? Give up on voting?

Or, wake up one morning to the thought ‘Nothing will improve until we understand the present system of government as a whole is what stands in the way of successful government’.

The system we have can’t work. It is inevitable that governments produce serial failure, receding democracy, voter disengagement, corporate entrapment, high costs, and unfair taxes, all with a granular coating of sleaze.

Ok, says my editor, “we all know it’s rubbish, Ed, but you need to go well beyond yet another critique and produce a solution”. So, I got on with the analysis, concluding that the reason governments fail is that they have never been designed for their modern remit – of spending nearly half the country’s money and providing masses of services. Of regulating major industries, controlling global corporations and sorting the world’s financial industry. Nor of balancing the consequences of longevity and the consequent inter-generational conflicts. Nor debt. Nor decision complexity. They may try to do these things, but not from an organisation designed for them.

So, what would a Design For Successful Government look like? This is my Treaty for Government. First we need feedback and government by results. This means feedback on the results of anything and everything done by or for the state, including legislation, regulation, statutory duties, policies and programmes, public sector services and bodies including the government private sector. Results equals judgement day awaiting every government proposal – its results will be examined and measured, regularly and publicly. This is an overdue discipline on everyone in government. And on corporate lobbies. And on us.

Second, alongside results would come the abandonment programme. Wherever something doesn’t work, it would halt alongside its costs. Policy termination would be the norm, not the exception.

Third, the stuff going into the pipeline must have a far higher chance of coming out the other end. The way policy is made and decisions are taken is random now. Thus policies and decisions would be vetted and, if not up to standard, rejected. Ten tests would be applied. These would obliterate ideology, prejudice, initiativitis, something (anything) must be done, preferential lobbying and the second, rate. Transparency would be common, not rare.

Fourth, for turning policy into practice – the operations of government – a set of duties including one of straight speak would apply to all public sector bodies.

Fifth, all of this means some big changes in the type and experiences of people in government. We need governments with people who know how to get things done – executive ministers, specialisation and training of politicians, maximum terms of eight years for prime ministers, four-year terms for governments, and new rules for changing party leaders. A new breed of politicians would emerge from executive roles in the public sector and elsewhere, and obtain their ‘coaching’ qualifications for government. At last, the Civil Service would be reformed and split in two.

Sixth, we need high standards of competition amongst political parties through fair funding of parties including limited state funding and banning large donations, the right to referendum, free assembly and expression, public deliberation and engagement, and full proportional representation.

Seventh, these roles must be in the right place to work. Just as the scores are not left to the managers to assert, spin, and argue over in sport, so governments cannot rate themselves. We need to allocate new powers not to the government but to the revitalised House of Lords for results – the Resulture – and to the House of Commons for policy vetting. The independent score keepers – the National Audit Office and the Office of National Statistics – would be offspring of the House of Lords.

It’s complicated, as you would expect.But, without this, government can only get worse. With it, the quality of decisions and delivery will rise, costs and taxes start to fall and the wider benefits of what might be called renaissance government start to accumulate. Where’s my next vote going? To the Treaty.