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  • Geoff Mulgan

Poetry, prose and plumbing: some first reflections on how Labour will govern

I’ve worked with politicians and bureaucrats in many countries, through periods of triumph and disaster, changes of administration, wild popularity and deep public distrust - including dozens of governments around the world (and pretty much all of the most effective ones). I've also worked inside Labour governments at city and national level in several countries (having knocked on doors for Labour during elections since I was about 13).

That gives me a different perspective to most UK commentators.  I think it makes me fairly good at spotting opportunities as well as potential errors, good options as well as self-deceptions (though I'm sure it creates its own biases).

Here I share thoughts about the new administration which has got off to a very good start and is a dramatic improvement on what went before. How government works matters just as much as what it does (even though this is of almost zero interest to the commentariat) and I’m now a professor in an engineering department, a field which cares a lot about practicality and implementation and has a low tolerance for the hot air that is all too common in and around politics.

The big picture

To start with the big picture.  Labour’s pitch to the British public was in essence simple: we are sensible and trustworthy, and the Tories have been a disaster.  The public broadly accepted both parts of the pitch and is feeling very relieved.

But now in government Labour has to shift gear.  The former New York governor Mario Cuomo famously said that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.  Today it would be more accurate to say that they campaign in simplified prose but govern as story-tellers and plumbers. They have to explain how all the things they do fit together in a coherent narrative. But they also have to get the basics right and handle the periodic floods and crises.

Here I'll mainly focus on the plumbing. A good starting point is that Sir Keir Starmer has said that he’s a pragmatist, interested in getting things done rather than abstract theory, and he is rightly concerned to avoid ‘sticking plaster’ solutions. But Labour studiously avoided saying much about how it would govern, for fear of jinxing the election. 

Mission boards

The main exception to the radio silence on methods of governing was the promise to create mission boards and a mission delivery team.   This follows the successful use of the language of missions to give a shape to Labour’s priorities.   A flood of reports suggesting answers came from London thinktanks this year and Starmer’s team briefed an ambitious reshaping of Whitehall along similar lines. 

These mark a welcome commitment to a more strategic style of government after years of short-termism.  The plans for mission boards echo past attempts to reshape government to better focus on cross-cutting strategic goals, including Ted Heath’s super ministries and Tony Blair’s many examples of ‘joined up government’, from homelessness to climate change.  Around the world many governments have created strategic clusters sitting above departments and ministries, and in Europe several have used the language of missions.

This means there is plenty of experience to draw on and some clear lessons about how to make these work, and what not to do. 

Labour’s last attempts at cross-government working – on everything from teenage pregnancy, Surestart and rough sleeping to climate change and neighbourhood renewal – mainly worked quite well according to later evaluations (though none is mentioned in any of the recent reports), and in a recent report for the European Commission, I documented many of the other methods used around the world to make governments more coherent, from wartime efforts to ways of coordinating science, energy to health. These show that more coherent, strategic, and mission-oriented approaches are feasible and can have big impacts.   

But there are quite a few lessons that may not yet be fully reflected in the plans.  

The first and most important lesson is that one size doesn’t fit all:  although spraying the word missions onto lots of committees and roles will probably do little harm, it will do little good either.   Generic answers never work well.  All experience shows that missions for different topics need very different approaches - health is not the same as economics, environment or crime.   Using the same word for different things doesn't make them the same kind of thing.  

It’s much better to focus on specifics.   Once you do that, it becomes obvious that a mission in a field where national government has plenty of power and money is quite different from one where it has to persuade others – like business – to act in a different way.  A mission with easily measurable outputs and outcomes is very different from one that lacks them.  A mission needing lots of new money is very different from one needing laws and regulations.

A cross-government approach to AI is going to be very different to a cross-government approach to relations with the EU.  A cross government approach to encouraging business investment, and the kind of concierge approach used in many governments (like Ireland’s Forfas agency who I once worked for) is very different from a cross-government approach to poverty.  

Anything too generic should be avoided (which is why I don't favour either creating large teams around particular missions at the centre of government or the alternative of putting them all in departments).  What makes sense for health (where the actions will primarily fall under DHSC) will be very different from growth (which cuts across multiple departments).  In short, a repertoire of different approaches is vital.

Second, don’t rely too much on committees: many governments default to setting up committees as the best way to achieve coherence, partly because it’s easy and it makes ministers feel important.  But they often have little impact unless they are very focused. Indeed, having spent a lot of time around government committees, I’m sure they are about the worst tools for making complex decisions, even though they have a role to play in bridging divides and settling arguments.   There are not many questions to which a board is the right answer (which is one reason why I worry that in relation to growth there may be lots of London-based grand committees, but not enough attention to the nuts and bolts of what happens in small businesses around the country).

Far better to build up teams that can focus on strategy and statecraft, the prioritisation and sequencing that matter so much for big goals.  And far better to focus on the mechanisms that can be used for cross-cutting tasks: budgets, roles, targets, data and shared teams.  Committees cannot substitute for any of that.

Third, pay attention to capacity:  missions can’t be achieved without competent and confident doers at a local level.   Yet capacity in local government and big cities has drastically shrunk, an effect of austerity and the savage hollowing out of local government.  The fate of the ‘levelling up’ mission is salutary. There was no shortage of bombast and rhetoric, and various high-level committees, but a glaring failure to think through actual mechanisms and capacities to act. 

Fourth, be careful with targets: there will be a temptation to underpin broad missions with a cascade of targets and central machineries to enforce them.     Data is vital – ideally as granular and detailed as possible (and No 10 now has a far better data team than a decade ago), and targets may make sense in limited circumstances for some nationally controlled public services.  Sometimes ambitious targets can provide a prompt for action – as in the case of past ones, eg to cut teenage pregnancy in half or rough sleeping by two thirds (both of which were achieved).  But targets can backfire if there isn’t a clearly thought through process for change, and where government lacks either sufficient knowledge or power to make them happen. 

Much has been learned about how to organise performance management; how to integrate it with the regular rhythms that shape institutions like schools or police forces; how to connect it to budgeting; and how to handle the human dimension. And much has been learned about how such systems tend to over-reach, with too many targets insufficiently grounded in understanding, which then prompts backlashes. I hope these lessons are well-understood.

It’s also vital to be clear about timescales and rhythms.  The apparent intention to charge a single Mission Delivery Unit with responsibility for both immediate delivery and performance management (which can work well for a few short-term tasks) and longer-term missions and strategy (which require very different methods and mindsets) may need to be rethought.

Fifth, don’t exaggerate the importance of structures. Whitehall loves shuffling departmental structures around.   But lumping responsibilities into departments is often a bad way to achieve coherence.  The lesson of history is that other things usually matter more: processes, cultures, relationships – and, above all, having well-thought through strategies.  In this respect it’s probably good that the government is not fiddling with departmental boundaries (though like most observers I'm sceptical about whether the Treasury still makes any sense: there are good reasons why no other country lumps public finance, economic policy etc in a single institution).

A possible error here would be to give big cross-cutting responsibilities to individual departments rather than using a mix of roles, cross-cutting teams and budgets.   It appears that all of digital has been given to DSIT under the energetic Peter Kyle.  That may give it drive and focus.  But digital technology affects everything government does, and most of the successful digital programmes globally have been driven by teams at the centre: Whitehall is good at ignoring cross-cutting programmes if they are only based in another department, as Boris Johnson discovered with levelling up which was made the responsibility of a single department without any cross-government machinery to support it.

Sixth, be clear about what missions can and can’t do.    Should the missions approach apply to 80% of what government does, 50%, 20% or 10% (none of the writing on this topic answers this most basic of questions, which obviously matters).   A sharp focus on a relatively few missions can be very useful.  A vague, broad-brush approach probably won’t be.  If committees or boards are given responsibility for huge swathes of government action, they are bound to end up as a mush, and, of course, a lot of the work of government has to focus on events and problems that don’t fit neatly into mission frameworks.

Net zero

These points become very apparent in relation to Net Zero, probably the best candidate for a mission approach. I've been working over the last year with the four governments of the UK and various ones across Europe on everything from home retrofitting to freight. It soon becomes clear that achieving ambitious Net Zero targets depends on hundreds if not thousands of related actions on everything from big energy infrastructures to cars, home retrofitting and heat pumps to supply chains, mobilising capital to taxes, regulation to food.  Some are easy, some very hard. Some are acutely political, others more technocratic.

That’s why the smarter governments have ended up with a patchwork.  Often they’ve let business take the lead on roadmaps and pathways to change big sectors like steel, shipping, chemicals and electronics.   They’ve used reporting requirements rather than targets; given leeway to local areas to work out their own solutions; redirected R&D; and created dedicated teams to handle key bottlenecks. 

One example is the complete failure to use data or consumer targeting to promote home retrofitting or heat-pumps, a crucial part of Net Zero policies.  It’s a soluble problem but requires focused attention, not grand committees.  Another example is the shortage of skills needed for things like heat-pump installation – again, it’s  a specific, granular task which may not be helped by fiddling with Whitehall organograms.

Missions have worked well as a communications device. But they are of uneven value as a guide to governing.    This is obvious to many of the civil servants who are sceptical about how much missions can help with the practicalities of government as opposed the rhetoric.  A pragmatist like Starmer should work backwards from specifics and be wary of abstractions and woolly thinking.

Ideas for government

A bigger issue is that the Starmer regime has given little hint of the animating ideas that will shape how it governs.   This won’t matter early on when calm competence will be enough.

Yet at some point it will need something closer to a philosophy – some guiding ideas that help civil servants work out what’s wanted.  You can’t treat every issue case by case.  That’s why all the most successful governments have some core beliefs, ethos, or approaches.

In the case of the new administration these remain unclear. Will it revert to Blair-era targets?  Will it encourage local experiment and innovation?  Will it slash back the proliferation of public sector regulators and inspectors? Might it address the problem of ‘cognitive load’ – since one of the vices of the Treasury and other bits of UK government is a tendency to create arcane and complex tax and welfare rules that then take up huge amounts of time to navigate?  Will it follow countries like Estonia or India which have used digital platforms to radically reshape government?  Just how much will it look to technology as a solution - and how will it avoid the past mistakes of tech 'solutionism', that sometimes led to disaster (like Horizon in the UK, Robodebt in Australia and many others)?

At the end of this article I've put links to some of the work I've done on other issues that will need to be addressed, from use of evidence to public finance reform. My hunch is that ideas about shared intelligence could provide a unifying theme – connecting the internal challenge of enabling government to make the most of data, AI, evidence and insights of all kinds, with the external challenge of public engagement (I’ll be publishing more on this later in July as one of the inputs to Brazil’s G20).  But I suspect it will take some time for these ideas to be debated and absorbed.

Global learning

This last point illustrates a wider challenge. The best organisations in Britain automatically benchmark themselves against the world’s best.  This is normal in business, science, arts and sports.  To be credible you have to be able to show that you know about the most outstanding performers globally, and that you are in touch with their thinking and their methods.

But this isn’t at all common in government. Britain has become far more parochial over the last decade, and far less willing to learn.  That was perhaps understandable for a Conservative government in its final years.  But it would be worrying if this turns out to be the pattern for Labour too.

In the past, the first step taken by the Strategy Unit, or others like the Social Exclusion Unit, when faced by a new issue was to ask who around the world was doing best, and who should we learn from.   We couldn’t usually just copy the best; but engaging with them made it far more likely that our solutions would be effective.  As far as I’m aware that habit has almost entirely disappeared in Whitehall.

Confidence and openness

Strong, confident leaders like Blair, Merkel or Obama surrounded themselves with talented people offering a diversity of ideas. They knew that was the best way to widen the range of options open to them (I took part in many events with all of those leaders who liked energetic, unscripted sessions where they could tap into the knowledge of experts of all kinds.  By contrast, less confident leaders, and their close advisers, keep things narrow, tight and controlled, partly for fear of being shown up.  

In the pre-election period tight control made a lot of sense. But it’s not such a good way to govern and can make governments brittle and prone to stagnate quickly.  It’s positive that Starmer has brought in some new blood, and Labour is blessed with a big hinterland of talent – including many of the new MPs.  But they need to be given space and time to think and argue, and perhaps to add a bit more poetry to the pragmatism. 

For now Labour has promised stability rather than chaos, a return to sanity rather than a leap to the promised land.  That is welcome and fits the mood of the times.

But before long the government will also need to think more precisely about where it might want to go 5-10 years into the future.  And soon it will need to show that it is equally at home with poetry, prose and plumbing, getting the basics right, but also setting in motion the steps that will pay off in 2028 or 2032 and energise a public whose default setting now is distrust and weary fatalism.



For the UK post-election I’ve written a parallel short piece for the Conversation summarising some of the questions the government has to answer; and I’ll publish short pieces soon on other more political questions, like how to turn the big number of MPs into an opportunity not a management problem;  how to be smart in competition with a resurgent populist right; and how to ignite imagination since it’s unlikely that the next election can be fought on a ‘steady as she goes’ incrementalism.

I'll also be putting out ideas on how to reform public finance; and how to be smart in using new democratic tools like citizens assemblies (where it's vital to get the right mix of methods and topics); and with IPPO policy proposals on innovation districts (which are an important part of growth strategies) and various net zero issues.

Over the years I have also written a lot on how to run governments, synthesising ideas that come out of my practical work with city and national governments, these include:

  • how to organise strategy (in my book The Art of Public Strategy);

  • how to organise intelligence across government (eg this study on intelligence in the pandemic, ‘Navigating the Crisis’ and various pieces on government as a brain);

  • how to organise 'Whole of Government' action and innovation (eg this project for the European Commission);

  • how to organise evidence in governments (eg this recent paper on evidence ecosystems);

  • how to organise the relationship between science and government (covered in ‘When Science Meets Power’);

  • how to reform public finance (eg this paper on ‘Anticipatory Budgeting’);

  • how to organise centres of government (eg the paper ’Rewiring the Brain’);

  • how to organise a ‘relational state’ (eg my various papers setting out the theory and practice, here);

  • what wisdom in government looks like (eg set out here);

  • how to win back trust drawing on lessons of history (as set out here) 

  • how to understand Collective Intelligence (in my book Big Mind) and use its ideas to regenerate democracy.



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