Six reasons the civil service should embrace mission-driven government

Civil servants want a minister with a plan. If there was one quality that set apart the best Ministers I worked for, they were clearly there to do something, could communicate what they wanted and then got on and did it. Missions offer a framework for instilling a similar driven mindset system-wide across the public sector, sending a clear signal within government and beyond about where the government wants to get to, and getting everyone pulling in the same direction.

These ideas are written all over Mission Critical 01: Statecraft for the 21st century, a new report from Professor Mariana Mazzucato published in partnership with The Future Governance Forum. Last Thursday, I spoke on a panel at the report’s launch event, sharing my reflections on mission-driven government – how it stacks up as a governing philosophy, the changes necessary (both structural and cultural) to truly reorient government towards a mission-driven approach, and how the system might respond when missions make contact with the civil service.

Here were my six takeaways:

  1. Firstly, mission-driven government starts off with the idea that there is a profound purpose to governing. Even from the inside (and with the best will in the world) it can be harder than you’d think to put your finger on the underpinning purpose of the government that you’re working for. Very few people have the privilege of hearing the Prime Minister or his or her senior Ministers talk in any detail about what they want to achieve. Those who spend their lives working right in the centre of government often don’t understand the impact this has on productivity since the 99% of people who are not in the room have to effectively second-guess what the bosses might want. Absent any other direction the risk is that much of the public sector will just trundle on doing what they were before. In essence a mission-driven approach clearly answers the question what are we here to do? It gives public servants some organising principles and something to hold fast to when they are making choices about where to focus. But they need more than slogans; they need a plan.
  2. Secondly, mission-driven government as set out in this report is fundamentally about being honest about the limits of government. Missions create a mechanism to articulate the outcomes you’re reaching for, but with the bravery to say ‘we might have some ideas, but don’t know exactly how we’ll get there, and we’ll change tack if it doesn’t work.’  While Ministers should absolutely set out what they want to achieve, neither they or their officials have the answer to everything. One of the most effective Ministers I worked for used to say that if the answer was to be found in SW1 you were probably asking the wrong question. The change that Ministers want will happen faster and better if more people are enlisted in trying to make it so.  Whether that is public bodies, Mayors, local government, businesses, charities, families and individuals: a mission-led approach allows people outside central government to get involved. More than that it asks them to step up. All of us re-make the world in which we live every day in the way we go about our work and live our lives. Beyond delivering essential services, 90% of what the government is trying to do is get people to make different choices, and you change behaviour by enlisting, co-creating and galvanising others, not by coercing or shouting over the top.
  3. Third, as well as honesty, Westminster needs humility. The report talks about the concept of ‘humble government’. It means being able to experiment and take risks in how something is designed and delivered, and to change course when a better one is available. Which is easy to say and very hard to do. And I am realistic about how hard it is for politicians to do this in the 24-hour scrutiny environment they operate in. Humility matters in its proper sense, too: it has to be possible to admit mistakes. But it is essential for our collective safety. Whitehall must get better at asking itself questions about the impact of its own ways of working. The absence of conditions in which people can say ‘hang on, that doesn’t look right to me,’ has repercussions which are all too obvious to anyone who has followed the Post Office Horizon scandal or the infected blood inquiry. I touched on this issue in my evidence to the Covid Inquiry: ”Bureaucracies are inhuman, and it takes daily and sustained effort to insert humanity and – importantly – the necessarily humility to make the right decisions…I would be worried if they answer to an absence of humanity and humility was to create a bureaucratic or system answer. It is as much about the people and how they are incentivised to behave.
  4. Fourth, governing done well is a team sport. I like that the paper argues missions require a whole of government approach. To me, this is about asking, ‘what would it be like if everyone was trying to achieve the same thing? What if we made sure that everything – from procurement to policy to operational practice – was pointing in a similar direction and we were bringing everything we could to bear to achieve a particular goal?’ It is important that the missions and the missions programme have sensible boundaries. But it’s also ok to be ambitious and think about what is the maximum canvas to draw on: total government. And it will require some significant change. Putting a missions team on top of the systems and structures that exist will not work: the wiring of how decisions are made, how accountability flows, and who makes choices on spending and delivery will all need to change to get a different outcome.
  5. BUT fifth, that is not the same as saying everyone should now re-badge whatever they are working on as relating to missions. There’s a small but important point in the report described as ‘mission washing.’ A total government approach doesn’t mean that suddenly the work of the team digitising the public record is a critical part of mission delivery. Apart from anything else ‘mission washing’ risks devaluing lots of the rest of the business of government. And the government will have to earn the trust of the electorate to have enough time in power to make transformational change happen. Getting the basics right matters. Delivering on what people need outside the missions can’t become second order business. It’s not going to be enough to have a great goal for decarbonisation if you can’t get a GP’s appointment. On this as elsewhere there is so much good learning from the experience of the London Borough of Camden at the local level that I hope is carried into government. The Camden team have – over time – refined the approach to working in a missions-orientated way and demonstrated you can have a great and full programme of mission driven work and also value the rest of the operation. Everyone should listen to them!
  6. My sixth and final reflection is, somewhat reluctantly (I’ve long thought that recommending a central Whitehall unit as a means of solving a problem is tantamount to admitting defeat), that a Missions Unit in the Cabinet Office or No 10 is probably necessary. Some structures are going to be required to drive these changes, but I would strongly advise not to get hung up on over-engineering the machinery of government. Mission-driven government is ultimately about culture change. The problem isn’t solved by the creation of a new unit. Especially when the risk is it will be like everything that has ever gone before. If EU Exit and Covid taught anyone anything about structures of Whitehall it ought to be that concentrating power and purpose in a small team in the centre (even a very talented one with a big list) produces predictable outcomes. If you want more of the same, keep doing the same.  The centre of Whitehall has not so far been found to be the place to solve systemic problems and the unit is going to have to work incredibly hard to set a tone of open collaboration and co-design with the rest of Whitehall and more importantly the world beyond SW1. It will probably take a few goes to  get the structure and set up right. That’s fine. In the meantime the thing that will make the biggest difference is the Prime Minister and his senior team setting the tone for that culture change, incentivising collaboration, and calling out his own team when they fail to work together. Allowing for failure and creating the space for success. Taking risks. This kind of change in culture needs hard wiring into any systems of reward and recognition including in the Civil Service. How about just promoting people who are really good at working across boundaries and giving others credit? I didn’t say it was going to be easy… 

But it can work. I learnt about mission-driven government – though we didn’t call it that – from Tessa Jowell when I worked with her on preparations for the 2012 Olympics. It remains a frustration that something so successful is so under-studied whereas the multiple failures of government are up in lights. The 2012 Olympics were a success precisely because from the off it was about so much more than achieving just one thing. Over the years some extraordinary teams in DCMS worked with every single layer of government, commercial partners and wider civil society openly and transparently. And this open collaboration didn’t just deliver that spectacular summer of sport but has improved schools, improved air quality, created jobs, raised safety standards in construction; and changed the geography of our capital city. The park is wildly successful, the public investment has been paid back many times over and it is still changing and being renewed. It’s very easy to say that was just because it was something as special as the Olympics and there was a deadline, but what has happened in Stratford is not the universal experience of Olympic host cities. It’s also not a reason to not try to borrow the best from that collaborative and open way of working. We made a lot of mistakes! And changed the structures and ways of working repeatedly over time. The deadline and the time pressure helped – I know we felt we couldn’t afford to fail. But is that mission driven sense of having to succeed really so hard to replicate when you are trying to fix things that matter? 

Anyone who worked in DCMS during that period and had to go to a meeting with No 10 or HMT will tell you humility wasn’t in short supply: I don’t think we could have done what we did on the Games in such an open and adaptive way from a grander part of Whitehall. I know we wouldn’t have been able to do it at all without the combination of ruthless focus and personal generosity and vision of Tessa Jowell. One of the wider lessons of 2012 is that DCMS didn’t choose to stop at the departmental boundary and just worry about the sport or the culture or the tourism – driven by Tessa Jowell and Jeremy Hunt the DCMS team wanted the games to deliver for the whole of the UK and for longer than 2012. How can that spirited way of working be replicated across other significant public investment? The HS2 story, for instance, might have had a different ending if it was conceived of as more than a transport project, but an opportunity to drive inclusive growth and housing; to change places and make them better. 

Finally, these are just my reflections; you might be reading thinking ‘ok, but I’d do X or Y differently.’ That’s precisely the spirit of mission-led approaches to government. Set out what you are trying to do and invite the widest possible group of people to play a part in generating the ideas for how to get there. No one has a monopoly on wisdom. The bottom line is that, however mission-driven government is achieved (and reading Mission Critical is a good place to start), it is entirely within the government’s powers to change how it delivers to a mission-driven approach. Just as every public servant can turn up to work and work differently if they are given the space to. And for those rolling their eyes and saying this is bound to fail or we tried that before and it didn’t work my message is simple: have a go at suspending your disbelief. Look around: no one thinks the status quo is working. Imagine a world where genuinely joined-up government is possible. More than that – choose to make it happen. 

About Helen MacNamara

Helen has held several senior roles in the UK civil service, including over a decade at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. She managed the domestic Cabinet Secretariat 2013-15 and coordinated preparations across government for the 2015 general election. She then moved to the then Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as Director General for Housing and Planning, before returning to the Cabinet Office in 2018 and serving as Deputy Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Cabinet Secretariat until her departure in February 2021.

Watch the event back here: