May's Good Government

19/10/2016 11:41
© Milo Robinson / Alamy

Theresa May's speech at the Tory Party Conference espousing "the good that government can do" has been interpreted as a political land-grab repositioning the Conservatives squarely in the centre-ground. While this may be true, there's an even more interesting shift in the Prime Minister's thinking - a much stronger belief in the positive role of the state.

This is not a party political point. It's far more important than that. Whether you are from the left of politics or the right, whether you believe in free markets or socialism, it is the quality of government that matters.

As the Prime Minister herself made clear. "No vision ever built a business by itself. No vision ever clothed a family or fed a hungry child. No vision ever changed a country on its own."

And the Prime Minister was unequivocal in the need to focus on delivery, telling her party faithful: "That's what government's about: action. It's about doing something, not being someone."

But while May's speech was itself long on vision and the need to deliver, it was short on the details of how government should be equipped for the task she's set.

That's not surprising, you might think - the technocrats can work that out later. But the hard truth is that unless the Prime Minster is prepared to focus on what is required to actually deliver results, she is likely to be disappointed.

We've been here before. Tony Blair spent much of his first term urging reform across the public sector in speech after speech. The results were lacklustre and it was only during his second term, when he focused his energies on what he called "delivery", that the needle started to move. As a member of his Delivery Unit that acted as an extension of No 10 tasked with chasing progress across Whitehall, I saw the real difference this made to policy implementation.

Blair dedicated a significant amount of his time to the endeavour - and the results were impressive, although they were fuelled in part by significant additional public spending. Nevertheless, just as it was being celebrated and replicated the world over, this new model of delivery didn't survive the change in government from Blair to Brown to Cameron.

Theresa May has now refocused the debate on good government arguing that we need less ideology and a more sustained focus on achieving the outcomes that actually matter for ordinary "working-class people". "It's time to remember the good that government can do," the Prime Minister explained. "While government does not have all the answers, government can and should be a force for good; that the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot; and that we should employ the power of government for the good of the people."

Whether May reinvents a Delivery Unit or not, she'll need a mechanism for holding her Cabinet, and the wider Whitehall machine, to account. And if she chooses to wield them, the tools of delivery are now far more powerful than they were in Blair's era. The vast oceans of data that exist within government are more easily tapped for insights than ever before. New techniques such as behavioural insights allow policymakers to "nudge" rather than shove. Digital technology can put people in control of services in ways hitherto considered impossible.

Now more than ever the Prime Minister should be looking for inspiration from our neighbours. For example, President Obama created the Performance Improvement Council (PIC) to advance and expand the practice of performance management and improvement in federal agencies. PIC combines rich insights from data with the latest collaboration techniques to radically improve results. In Canada, Justin Treaudeau created a new secretariat for Results and Delivery with much the same aim.

In short, the machinery of government has the potential to deliver May's vision of "government stepping up, righting wrongs, challenging vested interests, and taking big decisions" but it won't do so without determined leadership from the top.

Adrian Brown is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact (a not-for-profit foundation of BCG) and a former adviser within the No10 Delivery Unit.