Connecting missions, devolution, and public service reform

We are on the slow march towards the end of this Parliamentary term, with every government announcement part of the staging for the next general election. These are not unusual tactics, but government is not there to entertain commentators, deliver campaign messages, or position future leaders – it is the means by which our pooled power and resources are used to build and sustain a country in which people can thrive. 

The Autumn Statement was a good example of how uncomfortably the theatre and the substance sit together in reality. Some parts were aimed squarely at messaging, delaying, and ignoring difficult decisions across public services. Others were included to address the ongoing challenge of rising inflation, and a few more to deliver the remains of what one could call a government programme. 

But these different elements were not in service of one another (cuts to small business rate relief disincentivise business growth, for example), and this leads me to reflect on whether a mission-based approach to a future government could be used to design out inconsistency between words and deeds, to rebuild trust, and what else might be needed to make that work.

Devolution and public service reform make missions achievable

One of the prizes of a mission-based approach should be much greater clarity about the central political purpose of the state: what government does or does not do is defined by its missions. 

This works for government as it builds focus and sharpens prioritisation, it works for stakeholders needing to plan ahead, and it works for the public, who can more easily see whether government is using its power, influence, and resources in a way which is consistent with its mandate. Missions create space for all three groups to contribute. 

This is appealing, but the United Kingdom is centralised, with the power of central government further consolidated into the Treasury, supported by a functionally siloed civil service. This has an impact on local and regional government, which has to dance to multiple tunes from its funders and regulators. 

Nonetheless, those lower tiers of government are more strongly accountable to people, places, and economies, and it is here we can start to look for solutions, specifically with a renewed emphasis on devolution and public service reform. Both have their advocates and opponents and aren’t always seen as intrinsically linked to mission-driven government. But both are effectively neutral concepts until they are used as a means to achieve something greater. 

With missions as that greater something, the three connect as follows:

  1. Missions: our purpose. Missions are about what government and wider society want to achieve, why we want to achieve it, and how we want to work to do that. 
  2. Devolution: places other than the centre where the missions need to be led from and held accountable. Devolution is about doing things in the places, and arrangements which are closest to the resources and assets, we need or wish to invest into. 
  3. Public service reform: our priorities for change. Public service reform creates the conditions to design out barriers to achieving good outcomes. It looks across silos, places, and disciplines to bring the right people and services together and considers how effective practice can be embedded and scaled. 

Take the individual placement support pilots running in various Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA) areas as a good example where all three strands are in play. Understanding that ill health is a serious barrier to economic prosperity (an enduring mission for governments of all types), the MCA model of devolution has created space for alternative approaches to be tested that consider the person’s aspirations, their local context, and the ongoing management and treatment of their health conditions. With different strengths in the two pilot areas (better health outcomes in South Yorkshire, better employment outcomes in West Midlands), it is exactly this sort of innovation which would benefit from greater powers relating to welfare benefits and employment support.

It is also manifest when existing devolved powers aren’t quite meeting the mark of the missions. Sticking to economic growth, business rates are a good example of this. They are an important funding stream for local services, and often used as a proxy for economic growth in the minds of policymakers. 

But this is not always the case – depending on the economic composition of an area, rateable value may fall as Gross Value Added rises (and vice versa). A local or combined authority may do all the right things to grow their economy, but the fruits of that effort will not necessarily return to them. That should not be how things work. 

Connecting missions, devolution, and public service reform will help government fulfil the promises it makes to its citizens and the communities they live in. It ensures that the vision expressed by missions actually connects to resources, to places, to the substance of people’s lives. It grapples with the reasons why things aren’t yet working, and actively works to correct it. 

So if we are to nurture trust, to renew the relationship with people and their government(s), and to work together on meaningful, hopeful things, we need to do all three in concert, with patience, rigour, and bravery. The country has long needed its sense of purpose back: this is how we build it.