Starmer’s mission-led government is a noble aim, but needs a moonshot approach to governance

To succeed, Labour should plan for its missions to be led by CEOs unencumbered by the usual Whitehall bureaucracy
Photo: GaryRobertsphotography/Alamy Stock Photo

By Patrick King

23 Apr 2024


Keir Starmer has staked the fortunes of a future Labour government on its ability to deliver five national missions. “Mission government”, we’re told, is “not about size. It’s about capacity”. But capacity is exactly what PM Starmer will lack on entering Downing Street.

From stark waiting times for healthcare to a crumbling school estate and prisons bursting at the seams, the state is under extraordinary pressure. If missions are simply stacked onto an already-stretched government machine, they are bound to fail.

Instead, missions should be treated as “moonshots”: separate from the business-as-usual work of government. In turn, delivering these ultra-ambitious goals will require exceptional skills and a radically different set up – and a lot of personal political capital.

This begins with leadership. Starmer should personally appoint “mission CEOs” to lead each one, subscribed to the kinds of highly ambitious target that are commonly used by fanatical tech CEOs. Interviewees for Reform’s recent report, Mission control, explained that setting “insane targets” can be a powerful way of “bouncing the [Whitehall] system” into action.

Another pointed to the “Roger Bannister” moment that sometimes occurs in public service reform, when a level of performance “previously thought impossible” – like the 18-week referral-to-treatment target (set when waits were routinely more than 18 months) – becomes the standard for comparison.

Meanwhile, Whitehall must be prepared to pay well above its usual rates to bring mission CEOs in, with serious financial incentives for hitting milestones towards each mission. Too often, interviewees told us, Whitehall programmes are often headed by a “nondescript director general” with “little to no relevant delivery experience”.

Bringing in someone with world-class experience from outside the public sector could be costly, but if even one of Starmer’s missions is successful, they’ll have more than paid for themselves. As one interviewee put it, “if you want to build 40 hospitals”, you’d better bring someone in “who has built a lot of hospitals”.

And since innovation tends to occur on the edge of bureaucracy, direct sponsorship from the PM would enable mission CEOs to work in a much more agile and entrepreneurial way – unencumbered by the usual Whitehall bureaucracy.

For example, mission CEOs should have the freedom to appoint their own teams: drafting in people with specialist capabilities in data analysis, management and problem solving – as well as senior civil servants from departments relevant to the mission being delivered.

Similarly, rather than making constant business case submissions to the Treasury for novel or contentious spending – which, by definition, will be required in mission innovation – there should be a single business case for a mission’s entire programme of spending, just as Aria has.

To support this, Reform’s new report recommends establishing a cognitively diverse external board for each mission, that would help shape strategy and act as a critical friend. Crucially, appointments should not be made from a pool of “usual suspects”, who are well networked in Whitehall or perceived as well credentialed. Government should seek to appoint scientists, entrepreneurs and experts to these boards, who can problem solve and think differently. 

Clearly, some of Labour’s missions – like “breaking down barriers to opportunity” – that focus on cross-cutting areas of public service reform will require a massive amount of join-up and logistical work across departments. To coordinate these efforts, history has shown that the centre of government must be a strong catalyst for change.

To drive activity across government, a dedicated “Missions Unit” should therefore be established in the Treasury, with PM sponsorship. Just as the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit under Blair acted as a kind of mission control centre, this multidisciplinary SWAT team, led by a permanent secretary-level CEO, must do the same for Starmer.

Finally, missions should be tracked, and accountability exercised, through a cabinet-Level “Missions Board”, chaired by the PM and attended by the cabinet secretary, to bind in relevant secretaries of state. As Lord Maude’s recent review of the civil service found, cabinet government is a “cumbersome and arcane” forum for decision-making. In other words, antithetical to the approach needed for missions.

Mission-led government is a noble aim, and one that could make a real different to mobilising the civil service towards complex challenges. But to deliver moonshot ambitions, Starmer will also need a moonshot approach to governance.

Patrick King is a senior researcher for Reform

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