The future of the left since 1884

Prioritise and prepare

Bronwen Maddox offers her advice on how to work with the machinery of government and explains why Labour shouldn’t fear “Sir Humphrey"



Labour is clearly energised by the disarray of the government over Brexit. How should the top team now prepare for the possibility of suddenly being in power, if there were a general election and Labour won? What could they do to make the transition as smooth as possible and to maximise their chances of putting a “radical Labour programme” into practice?

The Institute for Government, a non-partisan think tank, runs courses and gives private advice to ministers on how to be more effective – how to set priorities, set up their office and work with the civil service to get things done. We also work with oppositions in periods before elections on their potential transition to government. Here is my advice to Labour.

1. Don’t aim to do too much. Labour’s top team talks about three areas where it has big ambitions. The first is the radical programme itself – including the renationalisation of water, rail and other industries. The second is “machinery of government” change such as creating new departments for housing and labour. There has been talk, too, of changing the relationships at “the centre” – that is, between Number 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. Third, there is Brexit, which looms over everything. It may not be Labour’s favourite subject. But unless a new Labour government actually committed the UK to staying in the European Union, it would have to manage an exit.

Each one of these areas could absorb a government for its whole term. That is manifestly true of Brexit (as we can see now). The best advice is to make the minimum change possible to Whitehall that will still support your agenda, to avoid losing valuable time.

2. Work out what impact Brexit will have on your time and your wider programme. The question of the UK’s relations with the EU has divided the country, the parties and parliament precisely because it raises such different visions of the future. You will need better answers in government than in opposition – and those answers will affect policies apparently unconnected to the business of leaving the EU.

3. Distinguish between what can be done on day one and what will take years. A Budget and tax announcements are in the first category – although working out the ramifications of changes takes a lot of analysis. “Abolishing outsourcing” (as some in Labour have mused about doing) will take a lot longer. Contracting represents around £200bn of annual spending, on some estimates roughly a quarter of public spending. You could decline to write new contracts from your first day, but scrapping what’s there is another matter entirely. Some projects and services will have proved much better value for the public than others. Analysis and evidence are needed to distinguish those performing well from the others (as the IfG is now doing). Even where a contract appears poor value, it might cost more to get out than to stay in. Yes, you are right that this is a good time (with public support) for taking stock of a 30 year experiment in using the private sector for government work. But changing course will take hard work, time and possibly a lot of money too. Think what you really want to do.

4. Prepare your team to be effective ministers. The shadow front bench holds talented and forceful politicians but lacks experience in office. So make the most of opposition. Put shadow ministers in the jobs they will hold in government – and keep them there. Prior knowledge of their briefs will be hugely valuable; a lot of testing of policy ideas can be done in opposition. Help them think about how to be a minister (we run courses in this precisely because it presents challenges unlike any other walk of life). How to set up an office, to run a diary, to pick advisers – these are all things shadow ministers can usefully think about in advance. What public bodies fall in which domain and do you understand their work and their degree of independence? That is not a trivial point given the complexity of modern government.

5. One principle trumps all – don’t have too many priorities. Think all the time: if you are judged in a year’s time on what you’ve done, what would you want that to be? Allow time for implementation – and for the way that policies evolve as they are put into practice.

6. Consider how to work with the civil service and talk to those with experience of this. Musings from some in Labour about whether the civil service would be instinctively opposed to a radical change in programme are misplaced. Officials in the civil service are professionals. They are there to support whatever government is chosen by the electorate. If you’re sceptical that this is true, think of the big changes of philosophy and style of working that the civil service has accommodated, regardless of officials’ personal views: Labour in 1945, the Thatcher government in 1979, the Blair government in 1997 – and Brexit.

It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that most people employed in public service do think that government is “part of the answer”. If you presume that they are against you, you do a disservice to that commitment to public service. You do need to work with them to get anything done. So explain what you’re doing and why. Recognise that you are calling for a change of direction and even mindset and that it is not a moral or intellectual failing – or a sign of tacit obstruction – if they do not immediately anticipate everything you have in mind. Take the time to discuss it.

Don’t be so focussed on potential obstruction by imagined “Sir Humphrey” figures that you are blind to what some think the greater danger – that officials, eager to please, say yes to you too easily. Encourage constructive challenge – early enough that you can use it well.

7. The same goes for the military, a point to think about if you are proposing big change to Britain’s defence policy. Yes, you will get sniping from retired generals in the pages of The Telegraph and elsewhere. But any government does. The senior military are very conscious that they lead people who risk their lives for their country; they have strong views on its direction, and they will let you know. That is the privilege of being in power. The important point is to know what you’re doing and why.

So if you are going to scrap Trident, for instance, have an answer for what that will mean for Britain’s place in the world and why you think that best. Have an answer for the size of the army you think the UK needs and the circumstances in which you would use it.

8. If people tell you that something can’t be done, they might have a point. Yes, it is possible that they might simply lack your vision. Sometimes you just have to forge ahead. But respect evidence and experience – some things have been tried in the past and the lessons of this experience are worth learning. That will save you time – and maybe, embarrassment. Don’t get defensive if people call for evidence and analysis. They have a right to expect that you have thought through the policies you propose and to have considered who will lose as well as gain, all the more if you propose radical change.

9. Recognise that government has changed a lot. It works differently even from a few years ago. Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is part of that. So is the creation of mayors, city regions, and changes in local government powers and financing. Within the civil service, the past five years alone have brought much more emphasis on specialisation and professional skills – finance, writing commercial contracts, pursuing digital government, human relations. Be alert to the way that relationships have changed – and are changing.

10. Try to keep the big picture questions in mind and have your answers to them. This is what everyone really wants to know from you – what you are doing and why. That goes for the civil service, the military, the media, the public. The clearer your narrative – and your reasoning (based on evidence) about the effect you think it will have – the easier for people to work with you and support what you are doing.

There are few easy ways ahead and no simple solutions. The UK’s national finances do not currently support the level of public services that people want, even if it is not alone among modern democracies in that predicament. So explaining why you are making the choices that you are, and why you are convinced that they will work, is essential. It is why you have won a general election and are in government.

Bronwen Maddox

Bronwen Maddox is director of the Institute for Government.


Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.