Mission critical: how a new government can lead with purpose and govern in partnership

Whoever wins the general election in five weeks’ time is going to face crises on multiple fronts: in the economy, and also in public services that lack the resources, capabilities and strategic direction to deliver the outcomes they should. These crises cannot be disentangled from one another; an incoming government cannot wait for economic growth to return before it begins to address the broader social and environmental challenges facing the UK.

These challenges have rarely been greater and more complex, and the prevailing model of government as it is currently constructed is simply not up to the task of tackling them. What’s needed is a shift to mission-driven government.

Mission-driven government means leading with purpose and governing in partnership; it means recognising the critical and legitimate role the state has in providing a strong direction for society and the economy, and it means being both aware and humble that the state cannot deliver missions alone. 

A mission-driven approach is also what enables the government to bring economic, social and environmental goals into alignment, recognising that growth has not only a rate but also a direction – and that the state can and should make choices about where it wants to see growth directed.


From ambition to action

There are encouraging signs that leading politicians understand the scale of the challenge and the need for a change in approach. The opposition Labour party – according to polls, on track to form the next government – has made mission-driven government a central part of its pitch to the electorate and announced the five headline missions it would seek to deliver. Should the governing Conservative party defy the odds and win re-election, then the seeds for a new approach – should they wish to take it – are there in the 2022 Levelling Up White Paper and its 12 national missions, subsequently codified in the 2023 Levelling Up and Regeneration Act

Whichever party wins on July 4, the new administration will need to act quickly to turn campaign pledges into a programme for government – to move from ambition into action. Genuinely mission-driven government is about much more than a statement of intent and of policy priorities; carried out properly, it is a fundamentally different approach to statecraft. 


Six principles for mission-driven government

To help that incoming government, we’re pleased to publish today Mission Critical 01: Statecraft for the 21st century, a new report by the leading expert on missions, Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, in partnership with The Future Governance Forum. 

Rooted in the UK’s leading thinking on missions, as well as concrete examples of where they are being delivered in practice, the report sets out practical recommendations for the next government. 

Today’s report, Mission Critical, sets out six principles for mission-driven government. We argue that a new government serious about this approach should:

      1. Make missions the first priority for the whole of government. Government should use its missions to set a direction, but not dictate how goals are reached, instead leaving room for experimentation across society, and focusing on outcomes rather than inputs or outputs. 

        1. Embed a long-term mindset into the design, funding and evaluation of policy. By setting ambitious long-term goals, missions provide policy makers and civil servants with a greater and continuing sense of purpose, while embracing the networked and messy nature of change and encouraging much needed partnership working. Long-term thinking also needs to be baked into funding cycles to provide stability for sectors whose investment, innovation and effort is required to develop solutions. 

          1. Act as an ‘orchestrator’ to galvanise action across multiple actors and sectors. Unlike prevailing methods of governance, missions explicitly require mobilising different actors across the whole of society. Central government must adopt a new, more humble mode of statecraft, unlocking a national collective endeavour with central, local, regional and sub-regional government working alongside the private sector and civil society. 

            1. Tell powerful stories to connect to people’s everyday lives and build a ‘coalition of the willing’. Where mission-driven strategies have already been tried at local or regional level, they have been delivered against the grain, and a national programme will feel counter-cultural too. Missions require a legitimacy which comes from wide public ownership, with meaningful opportunities for citizen engagement; building a ‘coalition of the willing’ creates the permission and authority to act.  

              1. Invest in dynamic capabilities around policy design, participation, digital innovation and experimentation. Missions exist in unpredictable, messy contexts, and so changes will be needed in Whitehall, emphasising experimentation and prototyping and constantly questioning how well policy ideas will survive contact with reality. 

                1. Redesign public finance institutions, processes and tools to direct public and private investment in line with mission goals. An incoming government should embed missions into the wiring of financial decision-making in Whitehall by embedding them in the structure and operations of the Treasury, and processes such as the spending review and the budget. Missions must be primed with patient, public finance, which in turn crowds in private investment around shared challenges. 

              The pressures currently bearing down on the UK economy and social fabric mean that there will be a strong temptation for a new administration to fall back on the traditional Westminster-Whitehall model of government, perhaps making minor changes to ensure that it functions better than it has in recent years. But doing so would be to set themselves up for failure: neither able to rise to the challenges nor seize the opportunities of the coming decade. 

              Instead the next government must move forward, rethinking the model of governance itself and setting mission-driven government in motion from day one. A new administration is never more powerful than in its first days and weeks in office, so it should use that political capital to make bold mission-driven commitments and fundamentally reform the inherited model of government. The dividends that can be reaped, for the whole country, are enormous.