Mission: Possible

By Theo Blackwell and Andrew Greenway | 05 June 2024

With the General Election now set for July 4, the phrase ‘mission driven government’ is swirling around Westminster. Consensus is building around the idea that in order to operate public services fit for the 2020s, drive economic growth, and tackle the complexities of climate, conflict and AI, the country’s institutions need to evolve and become more collaborative. But what will this mean in reality - and how can this embrace the skills and experiences that already exist at the local level? 

The Future Governance Forum (FGF) published Mission Critical 01: Statecraft for the 21st Century last week, exploring how a future government might implement missions in practice. Key amongst the principles it recommends a new government should adopt is a new approach to policy design. One that closes the gap between intent and results; and emphasises the need for central government to govern in partnership with places - unleashing much needed energy, capacity and expertise.

As the idea of missions takes flight, it is crucial we don’t fall into two traps that have bedevilled past attempts to rewire the workings of government. The first is to focus too closely on the concepts, at the expense of working out how things actually get done. The second is viewing the world beyond Whitehall as just another set of stakeholders to handle, rather than as essential contributors to reshaping public service delivery across the country. 

One of the biggest changes implied by mission-driven government is to the ways of working required from our institutions. Earlier this year, Public Digital and Nesta published a report called The Radical How, describing some of these shifts. These involve teams tackling complex problems by starting small, taking a rapid ‘test and learn’ approach to design, and scaling up as they learn more about what people need. By combining the experiences of experts in multidisciplinary teams they can draw upon a richer view of what those needs are, and how they’re changing. And by building upon shared data infrastructure and common technical components, they possess the means to design public services that are genuinely responsive to citizens’ needs. Public services shape peoples’ lives, their lives must shape public services not just by consultation, but through design.

None of this is brand new thinking. But it tends to occur only when normality has been suspended, as it was during the Covid pandemic. The typical approach to public service delivery remains one where requirements are defined upfront, and false certainty is chiselled into five-year business cases. The role of citizens and communities in this is often a passive one, restricted to making their views known only when a ‘solution’ is foisted upon them. 

For mission driven government to succeed, the things public institutions already do when at their best will need to become the standard, rather than the exception. Funding is a factor. But money isn’t enough. It also demands an investment of leadership energy, focus, and a willingness to be bold. The potential rewards of getting mission driven government right are great. They won't be realised without a cultural change; and the confidence to stop things as well as start afresh. 

Part of that cultural change will be reframing the relationship between central and local government on public service delivery. The Radical How discussed where mission-oriented methods have been adopted or ignored within Whitehall, and the resulting consequences. Similar stories abound in local government. The London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), funded by the Mayor of London, London Councils and 28 London boroughs to support digital transformation and innovation-at-scale is a positive outlier in English local government. But unfortunately, compared to the national picture, the good, the bad and the ugly at a local level too often go unexamined beyond a small circle. And the gulf that exists between local and central government in terms of delivering direct-to-citizen services - with councils, NHS boards and mayoralties frequently cut out of the loop - is to the detriment of designing interventions that work on the ground.

In partnership with the FGF, we are working over the summer to build on the thinking set out in Mission Critical and the Radical How to develop a practical proposition for big changes in how government services work, working closely with local councils, collectively and supportively.   

The guiding principle should be collaboration, not centralisation. In practice this means: 

Digital - investing in the kind of talent Whitehall itself did when it created the Government Digital Service and GOV.UK. 

Data - helping councils share data effectively with each other, for better insights and forecasting, or to fuel more responsive new services and business models  

Technology - challenging the dominance of the inflexible Big IT systems which currently limit how we use data, or innovate with it. 

Innovation - supporting, matching and celebrating local councils trying out new ideas and technologies, like using AI to improve services, through measures like extending government-supported isolated testing environments and open innovation calls.

Creating a strong mandate and rallying support for a government focused on missions across the entire public sector is a difficult task. However, continuing with the status quo is not a viable option. The longer we allow this to persist, the greater the collective organisational debt becomes, hindering our capacity to address significant societal issues like achieving Net Zero and tackling the cost of living. As this debt grows, the Government's impact diminishes over time. It’s time to turn that around.

Theo Blackwell is chief digital officer for London. Andrew Greenway is managing director of Public Digital, and co-author of the Radical How

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