Nick Herbert is Chairman of GovernUp, and is a former Minister.
Many who are calling for a steward’s inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic are longing to attribute blame. The media have treated the crisis like an extended election campaign – a blood sport in which politicians must be hunted down and caught. Of course, we must learn from mistakes. But some lessons from the response to the pandemic are positive ones. Whether or not the political system was slow to respond, crisis jolted it into action and unprecedented delivery.
Those who try to ascribe credit either to the State or the private sector, according to their ideological bent, miss the point. Some of the most impressive responses were driven by a partnership between, variously, civil servants, academia, the military and the private sector. Hospitals sprang up within days. Testing was rolled out to millions within weeks. Vaccine development was accelerated by months, if not years. At the heart of these successes were highly motivated teams, able and empowered actors working to a common goal, overcoming obstacles and determined to get results.
This is the new story: fusion government, combining the talent of the public and private sector to get things done. Yesterday’s debates were about privatisation or the size of the State. Today’s should be about recreating the alchemy which saw the best of public and private contributions mixed to explode the State into action.
The cost of the crisis has been immense, and if government is going to be bigger, then it must be better. Already, the State faced extraordinary challenges: how to decarbonise the economy in a matter of years; how to level up parts of the country that have been left behind for decades; how to make a success of globalisation and the new world of Brexit.
Now we have to add the tasks of dealing with a record budget deficit, restoring economic growth and delivering on a new priority – ensuring health security. No administration since the war has faced challenges on this scale. When the country is unlocked and daily life begins to recover, we cannot afford to return to government as usual.
Few thought that the Whitehall machine ran with Rolls-Royce smoothness before this crisis. It was always clear that it lacked the necessary skills, struggled with the delivery of major projects, and failed to match the private sector’s ability to drive efficiencies and meet consumer demand. While the rest of the world advanced into the digital era, Westminster and Whitehall have seemed trapped in a Victorian time-warp of clerks, memos in triplicate and red boxes
If the crisis has uncomfortably exposed Whitehall’s weaknesses, it has also showed that re-shaped government can get things done. So let’s make lethargic administration a malaise of the past. New government should permanently be energetic and can-do. It must be determined to cut through the bindweed of regulation, the second-guessing, the endless consultation, the pressure group-driven judicial challenges and the vested interests.
The visible symbol of can-do government should be new infrastructure. Construction can, and should, start in months, not years. Accelerate the runway, the rail links and the roads. Build the houses sooner. Put in 5G and fibre broadband now. Challenging the Chinese won’t just be about a more aggressive foreign policy stance. It will be about matching the energy of Asian tigers.
We should be similarly ambitious to re-build our social infrastructure. The crisis showed that rough sleepers can be taken off the streets and housed. That rapid policy response was delivered by charities, working with the private sector, driven by a brilliant public servant. Let’s beam the energy of this fusion government to the other areas of social policy that need fixing. We’ve been taught, in the most horrible of lessons, that social care can’t wait any longer to be mended. Nor, if we want the economic growth to sustain the size of State we have created, can national deficiencies in skills and productivity.
Can-do government won’t be delivered by incremental change, modest White Papers, or time-sapping consultations. Nor will it be achieved by the State in its current condition. A national effort to rebuild requires a call-to-arms to the brightest and the best from all sectors, the setting of ambitious policy goals, and a steely determination to meet them.
Reshaping Whitehall must be sanctioned by the Prime Minister, who is Minister for the Civil Service, but he can empower the Government’s proven reformer, Michael Gove, to drive change. The historic structure of government, with its three centres (No.10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury) and satellite departmental fiefdoms, now makes it dysfunctional. Cross-cutting teams headed by the most able ministers should be accountable for tackling each major challenge. The silos between ministries should be broken down, layers of official management stripped out and the barriers between the private and public sector made more porous, bringing in the expertise needed.
It took an earlier crisis, the riots of summer 2011, to prompt David Cameron to demand that the swift justice administered in response should become the norm in a system which usually tolerated delay. COVID has provided a second shot in the arm. Virtual courts are moving after years of resistance. Geo-tags for criminals have suddenly been procured after endless delay. The technology to transform services is already available. We can no longer be dumb about why smart government has eluded us. Frankly we’ve had neither the ambition nor the digital, data and analytical skills to deliver it.
The tired narrative of ‘Whitehall wars’, where any proposed reform is portrayed as an attack on civil servants, must be left behind. Most of the heroes of the Covid crisis work in the public sector. The operators on Whitehall’s factory floor aren’t to blame. It’s time to reconstruct the machine. Modern Whitehall was reshaped after the War at a time when politicians sensed the public demand for a new frontier of the State. We are at a similar hiatus in our history now.
Some are suggesting that the effect of Covid will be to so constrain resources and erode political capital that only a core government programme can now be safely delivered. That diagnosis, with its implicit recommendation of slow treatment for an ailing patient, could not be more mistaken. Ministers can either hunker down and wait for death by a thousand quills at the hands of Keir Starmer’s legalistic inquisition, or they can sideline opposition as they galvanise the country into recovery, fulfilling their manifesto’s promise of renewal.
Reform of government itself has always been seen as an optional extra, the obsession of a few political anoraks. Busy politicians had no time to examine the wiring in Whitehall. In fact, ensuring that the machine is capable of delivering has always been essential to policy success, and the failure to maintain and upgrade it has come at huge political cost to successive governments. That’s not a mistake to make again. Bureaucratic sclerosis is no longer tolerable. Accelerated government has been necessary to fight this pandemic, and it will be just as essential to ensure national recovery.