Opinion: Time to create a Department of the Opposition
The civil service has many skills but finds itself resistant to change. It needs to disseminate itself more widely across society – and a new ministry for the opposition could do it, according to Margaret Thatcher’s former policy advisor Norman Strauss
Governance is power. In theory, governance trumps everything that it controls – policy, players, strategies, parties. So why does reality mug it so often?
This question is crucial to the generation just starting on its career journey. How can new blood equip itself to shape its own future and thereby improve citizens’ lives?
An ideal starting point is to question every assumption about the system they are entering. This makes it possible to generate alternative views and begin to design a better governing system.
John Hoskyns and I were at this starting point in 1977, when pundits deemed all-powerful trade unions to have made the nation ungovernable. As nobody knew what to do, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph set us the task which would create our Stepping Stones report: to lay the ground, campaign to win office and, having won, be fit to govern.
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Because of our different industry backgrounds – he at IBM and I at Unilever – we were able to address the problem afresh. We were skilled at solving a variety of client problems, communicating the answers and making things happen. We were able to bridge the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be”. Yet even with this experience we were unable to effect the radical changes that our governance system still requires.
At one of my first solo meetings with Mrs Thatcher, I raised the topic of governance reform. This drew an immediate response: “It’s not the system it’s the minister”, to which I then had no reply to give. Today I would answer: “It’s both, but the system shapes the minister far more than the other way around.”
Let us start by considering the design assumptions which underpin our present governing system, from which its fitness for purpose flows. I believe there are three key assumptions.
First, our policies will be improved and their imperfections exposed by opposition in parliament. The best opposition shows respect for and tolerance of majority views, even though it argues passionately against them.
Second, whatever party is elected, the objective civil service provides the best people – let us call them meritocrats – to serve it.
Finally, the constitution is organic, slowly evolving with events.
The three assumptions are open to challenge. For example: if our constitution is organic, why isn’t our governing system? Instead, its changes come in fits and starts – especially at election time.
If parliamentary opposition is essential to check on and improve policy, then it follows that the meritocrats also need powerful scrutiny to keep their monopoly of governance advice at its peak of objective perfection.
However, meritocrats have no designed internal opposition in our current system, only external disagreements from commentators, advisers and, most powerfully, the reality of unfolding events. No other arm of the body politic has any sizeable built-in access to second opinions that matches the scale and resources of the permanent civil service.
When human governance is not an evolving system, civilisations and democracy fail and we descend into turmoil. In biology, an ecosystem is the community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. An ecosystem is entirely self-organised; it knows no hierarchy. Nobody predetermines it or tells it what to do. Ecosystems adapt through evolution – trial and error over time, mutation and natural selection. Extinction and damage occur when the system’s individual parts can no longer find a functioning way to live together. In human ecosystems the individual actors try to prevent changes to their environment and their importance within it. This creates instability wherever these human actions prevent the system from evolving naturally. So, instead of the emergence of a stable equilibrium of naturally interdependent forces we continue with countless selfish human attempts to muddle through.
Major reform will not happen without an external catalyst. I believe this is best initiated in a new Department of the Opposition. National interest demands that elected governments should be as well prepared and knowledgeable as possible. It follows that the most likely next government should have the same meritocratic advice available to it whilst forming manifesto policies and not just for their execution having gained a mandate.
To increase the chances of a Department of the Opposition improving the nation’s prospects, one of its crucial responsibilities should be to take upon itself the continuous search for governance evolution.
I can already hear the protests about the precious gift of civil service impartiality and objectivity having been destroyed by working alongside a political party in opposition, crossing the boundary between politics and execution, or by linking ideology with administration. I regard such complaints as illogical and unproven assertions.
Although meritocrats have improved governance, I reject the resultant doctrine that civil servants may only work for the governing party. If they can be politically supportive and partial once their new masters are elected – and be briefed by them before an election – what is to stop them helping the opposition to win, with a better tested and thus robust platform of more immediate benefit to the nation that they serve?
From the country’s perspective, the greatest possible use should be made of our finest brains and project teams. They should be collaborating with a possible next government, as it deliberates on and creates the best future for the country that it can.
The critical success factor, notably absent from conventional wisdom, is to spread and split the influence of civil service advice, by allowing meritocrats to work in parallel with opposition parties likely to form the next government, as well as with the government of the day. In this way advice and expertise may be diffused more widely across society; governance and governments would be progressively challenged or reformed; and the opposition become better prepared for office. The result would be raised prospects for the country, its citizens and their mutual national interest.
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