As Tim Harford and others observe, ultimate success in public policy often starts with a failure. And yet as Fraser Nelson observed in the Telegraph on Friday, Britain’s political culture obstructs and obscures successful experiments. The conservative institutions that orchestrate our public services typically remain very risk-averse.
News values are one reason. Innovations which don’t work out (however carefully managed) will attract media attention while those which are successful often go unnoticed. Also pivotal are the incentives and performance measurement models which apply to civil servants, as the downside risk too often far outweighs any upside reward. Francis Maude has spoken throughout the Coalition’s time in office about the need to change pay and reward mechanisms in order to free civil servants to innovate.
But one factor often ignored is the vital importance of strong political leadership. Ministers have often been too quick to criticise civil servants as stale and risk-averse, but have not led by example. Encouraging innovation from officials requires political leadership based on bold, long term vision and not political pragmatism. As Fraser Nelson observes, Michael Gove has demonstrated this, although even his reforming instincts are tempered by the political climate in which he operates – most notably the peculiar demands of Coalition politics.
Both Ministers and officials are vulnerable to longstanding cultural trends which hamper innovation and reform. Pay and promotions are ill-designed for civil servants while political expediency and media values can dampen the zeal of Ministers. But for both, the economic and fiscal imperative (along with rising expectations among service users) must remain paramount. Innovation, reform and renewal are vital across government if these are to be met. The role of Ministers must not only be to re-align civil servants formal roles and objectives, but to show the bold, unrelenting leadership that is needed to drive change from the top.