What government leaders can learn from England manager Gareth Southgate

Written by Sir Michael Barber on 2 August 2018 in Opinion

England’s World Cup performances brought the nation together. It also provides lessons for implementing change in government, says former Number 10 Delivery Unit chief Sir Michael Barber

Photo: PA

Like millions across the planet, I was entranced by the recent World Cup. France were ultimately worthy winners but as a patriotic England fan it was the progress of England to the semi-final that grabbed and held my attention. Of course, they weren’t the best team there, but they did go further than any England team for 28 years; and, perhaps more importantly, they captured the nation’s imagination.

We could talk about goalkeepers, penalty shoot-outs, video-assisted refereeing or which was the greatest goal of the tournament (Belgium’s late winner against Japan in my view). Or we could take five lessons from the World Cup for deliverology – the art and science of getting things done in government.

Lesson One: Have a plan and stick to it

It became clear, as the tournament developed, that Gareth Southgate knew what England’s best team was and he picked it for all the matches where the result would be decisive. It was also clear that the players knew how he wanted them to play; they had a game plan and stuck to it. Part of the plan was to play without fear and even to enjoy themselves – they managed both!

This applies to all the best approaches to delivery in government; there is a clear goal, and a practical, detailed delivery plan which is then executed. Fearlessness helps too because both ministers and top sports people know all too often what it is like to be on the receiving end of intense media scrutiny.

Lesson Two: Learn as you go

The second lesson apparently contradicts the first, but you have to learn from each game and apply the learning in the next. It’s not so much that the game plan needs to change; more that it can always be refined and improved.

In the quarter final against Sweden, applying all the learning from three group games, England produced their most accomplished performance for a generation. Every player at the top of his game and combining to make a fluent, coherent team. England fans could hardly remember what it was like to see such a convincing victory at the knock-out stage.

Not only that; Gareth Southgate has learnt from previous tournaments including in other sports –  why had England failed in the 2015 Rugby World Cup for example? And how do top American teams prepare for the Super Bowl? How do you motivate the squad players who are not being picked for the team?

It’s the same in government; you learn from the past and find ways of learning as you go. As with sport, you analyse the data. Often ambitious goals cannot be met just with the knowledge of those responsible at the outset. Think of Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Or, more modestly, Blair’s promise in 2002 to halve street crime within six months. Both delivered but at the time the pledge was made, neither of the leaders nor their teams knew how to get it done. They had an aspiration, a plan which enabled them to get started, and then they learnt rapidly and effectively as implementation proceeded.


Lesson Three: It’s all in the detail

Meticulous preparation is vital. No-one at the top of their game in professional sport just wings it. The top players sometimes make it look effortless but it never is; fitness, diet, daily training routines, statistical analysis, and endless practice.

The idea of some previous England regimes that there is no point practising penalties because the pressure is so great in a match was always absurd. Southgate’s players handled the pressure of a shoot-out because they knew exactly what they were going to do; they had done it dozens of times in practice. And England’s creative set pieces which brought vital goals, depended on practice as well as imagination.

Notably Southgate called on his players to play with ‘freedom’; he meant it and they did it. The paradox is this – contrary to popular wisdom, meticulous preparation and freedom are not opposites, they go together.

One of the weaknesses of many government reforms of public services is a failure to invest in sufficient training and capacity-building. Crucially what works is not generic capacity-building, it is building precisely the skills and knowledge to achieve a defined outcome. And the training has to be of real quality. So the paradox applies here too – specific capacity-building and professional autonomy are not opposites, they go together.

Lesson Four: It’s about teams, not just talented individuals

Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Suarez… all brilliant, all went home before England. One individual, however brilliant, cannot carry a team through a tournament. The whole team, journeymen as well as superstars, has to step up and combine to make the most of what they have got. A team stronger than the sum of its parts.

Croatia had a brilliant individual, Modric, but it was their team ethic that carried them to the final. England couldn’t quite match Croatia in the semi-final, but they played throughout as a team, enjoying each other’s company and making the most of not having any prima donnas.

This sense of team is vital to major government endeavours — without cohesion, without shared belief, without commitment to the goal and the team, it’s hard to achieve anything significant. Politics, like sport, is a team game. Success is much more likely when for each major goal there is a guiding coalition of seven to ten people who understand deeply what is required – for example, the minister, his or her chief of staff, the relevant person in the PM’s office, a couple of top civil servants and a key player in the finance ministry. Too often in government, team-building is left to chance –  it shouldn’t be.

Lesson Five: Authenticity and respectful relationships carry you a long way

It’s not uncommon in top sport as well as government to have leaders who yell at people and who, reversing the words of the famous hymn, are swift to chide and slow to bless. And people who work for such leaders follow suit; ‘the president is incandescent…’

Gareth Southgate showed us a different way. Unfailingly polite, thoughtful, humble, self-reflective and calm –  and at the same time obviously passionate, iron-willed and determined.

And not just with the team and the British public. Before the first game in Volgograd he reminded his audience, including the local Russian public, that he knew that this place had once been Stalingrad which ‘put football in perspective’. When on-field performance was questioned, he took responsibility himself, protecting the players thus encouraging them to play without fear.

Contemporary politics is awash with cynicism. Often neither promises nor claims are believed. As a result, governments are struggling to communicate effectively. There are only two ways that they can respond to this challenge.

First, they have to deliver – actually change the facts on the ground. Then when they say schools or hospitals are better, it is confirmed by the daily experience of ordinary citizens. That is hard enough.

Second, they have to speak with authenticity; don’t over-claim, admit doubt, wrestle openly with the dilemmas of governing and treat people in government, in the opposition and, above the public, with respect. Clement Attlee, prime minister just after World War Two was famously a man of few words. When a colleague asked him for advice on how to succeed in government he replied simply, ‘If you are going to negotiate with someone tomorrow, don’t insult him today.’ That is wisdom – and Gareth Southgate demonstrated exactly that through a World Cup.

A version of this article first appeared on Medium.

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Sir Michael Barber
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Sir Michael Barber led Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s delivery unit from 2001-5 and is founder and chairman at Delivery Associates and chair of the Office for Students

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