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A programme for effective government

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

Nicola Hughes, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, discusses the importance of thinking through party pledges to deliver major policy goals after the next general election.

The UK’s political parties are gearing up for a close race at the 2015 general election. The pledges they put forward to the public must appeal to voters. But if they want to make a difference in government, they must also think through how their pledges will work in practice and how they can govern more effectively.

There is a political imperative here. Recent polling carried out for the Institute for Government (IfG) shows that the public has little faith in politicians’ promises. It reveals a sense of frustration: while voters want politicians who honour their commitments, focus on the long term, run the government professionally and get good value for money, what they see is politicians vying for media attention, scoring points against other parties and focusing their energies on re-election.

That’s why the IfG has published a ‘Programme for Effective Government’. It contains practical advice on how parties can govern better and improve their chances of achieving major policy goals after 2015. The parties all have different ideas, but know that if they are successful next May they will need to reduce the deficit, grow the economy, tackle long-term challenges, improve public services and deal with an increasingly complex political landscape.

Reduce the deficit

Few doubt that spending throughout the 2015 Parliament will be tight, so parties should be wary of making spending commitments that they cannot keep in government. It’s also tempting to promise to scrap or restructure institutions (remember ‘bonfire of the quangos’?), but these moves may not deliver the savings they promise.

Huge cuts have already been made in government, but many departments feel they can’t cut much more from their own budgets without affecting service quality. That’s one of the reasons why the next government must rethink the spending review process. Hurried settlements and haggling between departments and the Treasury won’t work this time. The next review should build in more planning at the outset, cover a longer time period (even the full five years), incentivise cross-departmental coordination, and encourage those who run services to innovate rather than mandating change from Whitehall.

Achieve sustained growth

Parties are pledging to deliver better infrastructure, decentralise powers for economic growth and pursue a ‘sleeves rolled-up active industrial strategy’. To do so they will need more stability and better informed debate about contentious infrastructure projects to avoid the indecision, public anguish and uncertainty that have characterised HS2 and airport capacity in the south east.

This can be achieved through lasting forums and institutions, like those used in Australia and France. If they are serious about decentralising for growth, parties must make clear manifesto commitments for which tax and spending powers they will devolve – history shows that general commitments aren’t enough.

Address long-term challenges

Whether it’s energy security, demographic change or social cohesion, politicians know they must tackle complex, long-term policy challenges now to avoid crises later on. Long-term planning gets squeezed out by day-to-day politics, so the next government should consider special commissions or units.

To be effective, these need strong ministerial backing, good use of evidence co-operation between departments and to engage widely, as the Turner Commission into pensions reform did.

Improve public services

With ongoing demands for quality services, politicians know they must improve efficiency in areas like healthcare and education.

The tools they typically reach for are structural reform, IT-enabled change and involving the other sectors in service delivery through outsourcing.

Given the huge structural changes we’ve seen recently in the NHS and in welfare, the next government must approach major reforms cautiously.

It can focus on frontline process improvements and fixing the problems in broken and opaque public service markets to make existing services work better and build in much more transparency and understanding of customers.

Govern when power is widely spread

Ministers will find that they aren’t all-powerful in government. The next government will have to get things done in an environment where power is spread between devolved nations, local areas, with the EU and – potentially – between different parties if the election results in no overall majority. They will need better protocols and more co-operative, collaborative ways of working.

To achieve their goals after 2015, parties must govern differently. Our work consistently shows the need for government to be more accountable, skilled, strategic, joined-up and outward looking. The next Parliament will be challenging, but whoever is elected should seize the opportunity to deliver the effective government citizens want.

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