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Iain Corby: Oh crumbs, we won!

Iain_corby_1 Iain Corby is a management consultant who read PPE at Balliol and has an MBA from UCLA. He was Chief of Staff for the James Review and is contributing to the Public Sector Efficiency component of the Party’s policy review.

It’s a bit like saying “Macbeth” in the dressing room at the Palladium; no-one at CCHQ talks about winning the next election for fear of cursing our chances.  But, as the running poll on this site proves, we are finally in with a fighting chance and it would be imprudent not to plan for success. So the $64,000 question is – are we ready?  Do we have a plan?  Do we have the skills, knowledge and competence to hit the ground running?

The history book warns of the outcome if we are not.  Blair stumbled through his first term and wishes he’d been more radical.  Thatcher’s re-election is widely assumed to have been reliant on the Falklands’ war.  John Redwood organised a seminar before the 2005 election for the shadow frontbench team.  Their “training” for assuming office amounted to a presentation from a young high-flying civil servant who’d recently left the Treasury and a role play between Howard Flight and the James Review team imitating how Permanent Secretaries might react to the efficiency measures that the report suggested.  It was a good start, and probably limited in its ambition given the generally accepted assumption that we weren’t going to win, but next time we need to do much, much better.  The electorate has increasingly limited patience, and we’re unlikely to find part of the Empire invaded shortly before the election after next to secure us a second term.

And there is another good reason we need to hit the ground running.  The status quo creates interests around its continuance.  Thus, if you plan to change it, you need to do so fast, so that the new situation can drive the creation of new interest groups around it, rather than suffering from the criticisms of those who benefited from the status quo ante.  My own experience consulting to government departments reminds me time and time again that the electoral cycle is a huge influence on the development and delivery of government policy – nothing controversial is done in the second half of any Parliament, and almost all of the difficult decisions happen in year one e.g. nuclear power.  So the honeymoon period should not be seen as an opportunity to settle in – it must be used as the only opportunity to make a difference.

So my question is, what do we need to do to be ready for office?

The first challenge facing a new Prime Minister is the appointment of his ministerial team.  It’s undeniable that the skills required to manage a huge department such as the DWP are different from those needed to sit on the Opposition benches and completely different from those required to win a marginal seat.  At the risk of opening the Priority List debate, I’ve not heard that suitability to manage businesses with 100,000+ employees is high up in the assessment criteria.  Yet, our success or failure in office will be entirely dependent on the ability of 100 of our MPs to walk into their new offices and immediately assume control.  Making their departments “fit for purpose” is not a goal; it’s a prerequisite of survival.  To do so, ministers will need the skills of FTSE100 chief executives, a group which is particularly under-represented in our Parliamentary party, and nor would I recommend we flood the Parliamentary Assessment Board with them, as their doorstep skills are probably not going to win us Richmond or Reading West.

So what should we do?  Well, assuming Branson has not applied for the A List, the first thing successful people do is find smart people to help them.  While we criticise the rise in the number and cost of SpAds (special advisors), I argue that they will be more critical when we enter office than at any other time (and I should declare an interest in being one!).  Drafting in people with the experience of hiring, firing, driving, managing, inspiring, communicating, organising and motivating huge institutions is absolutely essential.  The default position for any MP receiving a call from Downing Street on the day after the election is to invite your loyal, senior researcher from the Commons to cross Whitehall and operate as their SpAd.  This is, of course, the worst thing you can do.  We should use professional head-hunters to identify candidates from the private sector who can ride shotgun for our new ministers as they run the gauntlet of the corridors of power.  I know this won’t make me popular in the Red Lion, the pub opposite Parliament, on Friday, but I know too many youthful New Labour SpAds to think this is not essential.  None of them should be under 40 (and I will be 38).

The next step is to shake things up.  The departmental and unified HR structure of the civil service is its greatest flaw.  Let me explain with an example:  Recent debate around the Child Support Agency argued that it should be moved into HM Revenue and Customs.  But if this had happened, what would really have been different?  They would have had the same IT supplier, employing the same former IT department employees transferred to them under TUPE, with the same senior management team and the same under-paid, under-motivated people answering the phone when you call them.  And even when its Chief Executive was removed as Alan Johnson’s scapegoat for the largest new Labour IT failure (until the NHS super-computer crashed last week), he simply gets another civil service post.  So I would dismantle the institution of the unified civil service. It would no longer be a single employer with a single grading and pay structure, and a closed shop for recruitment from amongst its own.  If you left the CSA, you’d have to apply for a job in the pensions service in competition with anyone else who wanted the job.  Think about what the results of this reform might be…

The third and final recommendation would be to do less, better.  Already in Scotland, the public sector is larger than the private.  In the UK as a whole, the trend is in the wrong direction.  Government is a necessary evil; its capability to deliver efficiently is horrendously inhibited by the political pressures upon it.  Locations for new offices are not determined by rental costs and the availability of skilled labour; they’re driven by the majority of the local MP.   No organisation with such inescapable constraints can operate successfully.  The Home Office is not fit for purpose because no one individual can actually grasp the spectrum of its activities.  So let’s make government manageable again, by pruning it with the same gusto as a Gardener’s Question Time listener.   UK plc can no longer afford the millstone of the public sector as we compete with emerging economies; if you can’t make it efficient, at least limit its size.

So, professional advisors, institutional reform and focus are the first three essentials of our first 100 days.  And for the superstitious amongst you, I shall now leave CCHQ, turn around 3 times, knock on the door and ask for permission to be let back in.


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