Anthony Browne: Ten lessons for the new Government from London about being in power
Anthony Browne is Boris Johnson's Policy Director for Economic Development, having previously been a journalist (working latterly as The Times' Chief Political Correspondent) and Director of Policy Exchange.
When Boris asked me to work for him, we mused on our mutual past as journalists. “You’re just writing about what others are doing” he said. “So much better to actually do things.” Indeed it is. It is a great privilege being a journalist, but as one hack put it, it is like being the eunuch in a harem – always speculating about it, but never doing it.
Now, after nearly two decades of scribbling about others, I have for the past year and a half experienced that unusual feeling for a Conservative - actually being in power. One shadow cabinet minister welcomed me working for Boris because the party was very short of people who had any track record of being in power. Before the election, another shadow cabinet minister told me “It’s so strange hearing a Conservative talk about ‘my officials’ - and so uplifting.”
Now, many of the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers will be as unaccustomed to power as I was. Over lunches, dinners and coffees, many asked me “what’s it actually like?”, quickly followed by “what have you learnt?”
Obviously, with just 18 months under my belt, and at a regional rather than national level, I have much less experience than even the smaller beasts roaming the Palace of Westminster. It has been a steep learning curve. The most sobering lesson is how difficult it is to actually make things happen. A journalist – or any bar room pundit – just pronounces that the world should be so, and thinks it is enough to make it happen. If you are in power, having the ideas is the easy bit. Actually turning them into reality in a sustainable, cost-effective way without unintended consequences is incomparably harder.
It is the mechanics of implementation that consume the mental energies – the project plans, budgets, working groups, SWOT analyses, GANT charts and generally bending the inchoate public sector to your will. Things must be implemented in a way that ensure that key people have the right incentives to make things work in the first place, and keep working in future. Processology – how you design bureaucratic processes to reach a desired end – is not just more important than quantum relativity, but more difficult.
As Tony Blair came to realise after the disappointing inaction of his first term, implementation is everything. Governments aren’t there to be ideas factories - they are there to change things. The trouble is the announcements are easy and glamorous, and delivery is a hard, grimy slog, and ministers quickly lose interest. That’s why Labour fell in to the trap of announcing endless new policies to great media fanfare, but then failed to deliver them. By the time the headline initiatives have run into the sand, the media have forgotten even mentioning them. The result is glittering media coverage of government action, but a slowly deepening public disillusionment that nothing changes. The government is left making announcements, because that is pretty much all it can actually do.
There are quick wins – such as Boris’s ban on alcohol on the tube – but in general everything takes longer than you think it should. Governments need to have four or five year terms, because it is difficult to do that much in less time. Shortly after the Boris came to power, a former deputy mayor from New York came to share his wisdom with us, and shocked us with his opening remark that in the public sector “everything takes six years.”
So with my soupcon of wisdom from my period of power, here are my top ten tips:
1. Don’t give in to the pressure to have the appearance of activity for the sake of it. Setting up a committee (even if you call it an “action task force”) is not actually doing something. You do need committees and steering groups, but they are only ever a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The public won’t thank you for sitting around talking to other people. The same applies to organising conferences or publishing documents. They are at best necessary evils, which easily distract from actual delivery.
2. Be ruthless about prioritising, and if things aren’t a priority, ditch them. If you do too many things, you will deliver none of them; it is far better to deliver a few things well than many things partially. You should put on psychological blinkers to stop getting distracted - people will come to you with glittering ideas every day, and even if they are persuasively good, you must treat them like drugs: just say no.
3. Don’t set up anything from scratch – it just takes far too long. There is basically nothing new in the world, and it is far better to work through existing structures and institutions, and get them to deliver what you want.
4. Be prepared for a backlash against pretty much everything you do. Anything that is a win on all fronts will already have been done years ago, and only things that involve trade-offs are left – and vested interests will always resist change. In fact, most people resist any change because the status quo is just so comfortable. You will only succeed if you have almost pathological determination.
5. What Tony Blair said applies to us all – we are best when we are at our boldest. When people first get their hands on the levers of power, they usually just tweak them for fear of what the effect might be. But to have any impact – and to do any good – you will need to give them a big hard yank. Too many reforms are fatally compromised by fudges.
6. Don’t worry about abolishing things. Often the anticipated protests don’t appear, and even if they do, people quickly adjust to the new reality and wonder what all the fuss was about.
7. Try not to lose sight of why you are there. As Sun Tzu said, and Gordon Brown discovered, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Take a lot of small steps in the same direction and you will travel a long way.
8. Your time is your most valuable asset – make sure you are putting it to best use. As Chris Mullin says in his deliberately down beat memoirs, most ministers’ time is taken up with pointless activity to stop them actually doing anything. Turn that around: make sure everything you do leads to your priorities. Don’t do things that you can get officers to do. Don’t be afraid to refuse to meet people – many more people will want to see you than you can possibly see.
9. Mandarins will cringe, but you do have to worry about management issues. If the civil service machinery isn’t fit for purpose, making it difficult to deliver your priorities, voters will still pin the blame on you, not the mandarins. The government lost control of the country’s borders because of bad management, rather than bad policies (although there were plenty of those).
10. Telling people not to do things is almost as important as telling them to do things. There is too much duplication, confusion and turf war in the public sector, and to be effective, everyone’s role needs to be clearly defined, with clear lines of accountability.
These tips might be no use, but they might do a little to help the new Government avoid the main failing of the last government – frittering away its first term, and only worrying about delivery after it was too late to deliver anything much.