After a career in journalism spanning the Financial Times, The Times and Prospect, Bronwen Maddox has taken the helm of the Institute for Government. She tells Jess Bowie about her vision for the IfG’s future – and spills the beans on dinner with Russian president Vladimir Putin
Why were you keen to take on the IfG role, from a personal perspective?
I was attracted to it because of the institute’s reputation – which is rightly deserved – for trying really to make things happen, trying to get change and being an advocate for that change. There are a lot of terrific think tanks in town – I ran the think tank awards at Prospect for many years, but this was something more. This was actually trying to bring about that change. That’s one reason.
Another is that in eight years the institute has developed a unique tone and identity for itself in being prepared to comment on government performance, but also advise in a more friendly way, a more private way, and really try to push through the change.
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The third reason would be the spectacle of decisions that go wrong. The economist John Kay described some of these decisions as “catastrophes of process” – bright people pushed into a position where they’re making bad decisions.
The final reason was the sense, which is very strong at the moment, of public scepticism about government. It matters enormously for the functioning of democracy that people believe government works for them and can be seen to be working well.
What direction do you want to take the IfG in?
We need to major on our strengths, focus on the things that have been the pillars of our work and make sure we’re much louder and more pointed advocates for change. To do that, perhaps [we need to do] more public commentary than we’ve done in the past, but also keep up the private conversations on what change could be produced. We also need to make sure that we look for those who will help us in bringing about that change – which could be non-executive directors, parliamentary committees, or the public.
We have a Brexit team set up. Like everyone else, Brexit has landed on our desks and it presents such interesting questions about whether government can deal with this incredibly interesting challenge.
We will have two landmark publications – very data-heavy – on supporting our voice on how government is doing: our traditional Whitehall Monitor, out next year, and a parallel document called the Performance Tracker to focus on public services: the money going in, what the outputs are and what that can tell us about government.
We’ll look into policymaking and say what goes wrong in the thinking as well as the structure. We’ll keep up our focus on Whitehall and the functional leadership agenda, where we’ve been very steady advocates.
Almost five months on from the EU referendum, precisely what Brexit means is still unclear. How do you see the IfG’s role unfolding on this?
I think we’re beginning to see what Brexit is likely to look like. The IfG came very fast out of the gates on it, and we’ve done a lot. We have our role defined as: set out the options facing the country, in our view; set out our thoughts on what it means to choose between those options; look at the process and management of the negotiations and what you need to get it done, and at how the government is managing that. We’ll also look at some of the implications for individual departments as illustration.
But I think that following the Conservative Party Conference, if you put the weight on controlling immigration that the prime minister appeared to, then you are led towards a harder Brexit. The government is beginning to choose among the options already.
So, hard Brexit or soft Brexit – what’s your advice?
There are options and there are arguments for either. I could give you essays on both sides but I’m not going to sit here and advocate which we should take. We can show the cost of the different options, and our document Silence Is Not A Strategy, which went everywhere and had the numbers of what the cost could be, is the kind of way we will take it forward.
What are your highlights from more than three decades in journalism?
There are probably two. One was the Robert Maxwell investigation: right at the beginning of my time at the FT I started investigating him, about four months before he died.
I’d been a City analyst and the numbers on Maxwell began to be available in the March before he died – they began pitching up in Companies House: what was mortgaged, and so on. That turned into a year-long investigation.
One showy highlight was probably dinner with Vladimir Putin at his house in 2007 when I was foreign editor of The Times.
How did you find him?
Small – probably about my height if I’m wearing heels. Disproportionately broad-shouldered; very long in his answers.
Did he have a good sense of humour?
None at all that I could see. Except that he said at five to midnight: “Is it I who is torturing you?”
There was much inadvertent comedy to be had, though. There were eight or nine courses that some terrified chef had had to prepare, all caviar and seabass. Putin would pick up his fork and all the Russians around the giant table would pick up their forks. Then he’d put his down without eating and they had to put theirs down without eating. The journalists just ate everything.
"People really care about whether government is working or not"
The serious point of it was the world view, which we’re now more familiar with, where the West is the aggressor, and he is simply defending his territory. Any charge: look at what you’ve done; “Look at what they’ve done.” Human rights? “Look at page 276 of the latest Amnesty International report, look how many executions there are in America.” Everything was rebuttal, nothing was accepted, nothing engaged with. It was a world view of such sourness and such calculation. It would be absolutely wrong to call it mad or paranoid or any of those things people sling out about other autocratic leaders. It was a calculation and an absolutely profound world view.
What was the worst moment of your journalistic career?
I was following George W. Bush when he was still Texas governor. We talked beforehand in his office, where he had a bizarre portrait of Sam Houston, the first governor of Texas, in a toga and bare feet. The conversation went something along the lines of “that’s what happens if you drink too much and I know because I drank too much and it’s a bad thing to do”.
"George W. Bush finally screamed at me: 'Irrelevant, irrelevant!'"
Then he started giving this talk to lots of hill towns during which he said: “Don’t have sex before you find the person you’re going to marry.” Once I’d heard this about four times – and I’d probably driven 400 miles while his helicopter went above – I thought, this is a really very odd message to be giving. Possibly it’s aimed at high school students, although it was given during the working day.
So I said: “Governor, speaking from experience, did you have sex before you married?” at which point everything froze and no-one said anything. A little old lady proffered him a bunch of roses and everyone was staring at me as this foreigner who’d asked an inappropriate question of the governor. He finally screamed at me: “Irrelevant, irrelevant!” and I then had to follow him another 200 miles to [the city of] Blanco where he said: “You’re a good kid really.”
How does life at the IfG compare with the pace of journalism?
It’s the same. I work full-on, so does everyone here. The IfG is full of passionate people who want to get things done and it’s an incredibly nice team – very bright, very committed, full of energy. People are trying to solve problems with a sense of cheerful energy.
Have you got your head around some of the more wonkish things the institute looks at?
I’ve read pretty much all the reports it’s produced in its life. I spent the months before I came here reading those. But I’ve also been talking to people here and I want to be very much engaged in the programmes. It’s not so much getting your head around the issues, but of having the issues and their implications come to life just as you’re discussing the current problem.
What project are you most excited about in the IfG pipeline?
To pick out just one thing would be wrong. Even Brexit can’t be allowed to dominate everything we’re doing. I’ve met quite a few permanent secretaries in the past few weeks to talk about the institute, and there is a sort of collective decision to talk about Brexit and normal life and not to let the second be totally consumed by the first.
Yes, we want to be one of the go-to places on Brexit, but we want the other important things we’re saying to be heard as well. People really care about whether government is working or not and the institute has an absolutely unique voice – that’s what makes it exciting.