Sue Cameron: Running the country is hard work – and government needs to be more honest about saying so

In a desperate bid to garner votes and popularity, many politicians pretend that they have simple answers to intractable problems

By Sue Cameron

28 Jul 2015

Tony Blair reckons that Genghis Khan could teach us a thing or two about government. “Genghis said conquering the world was easy,” remarked the former Labour PM. “The hard bit came when you dismounted from your horse and had to start governing.” Mr Blair, speaking to a Strand group seminar at King’s College London, added: “Government is hard. It’s much harder than most people think.”

His statement will not have surprised his audience of civil servants, academics and journalists; it goes to the heart of what is often the faultline between politicians and officials, not to mention the media and the public. In a desperate bid to garner votes and popularity, many politicians pretend that they have simple answers to intractable problems. Most know that their glib solutions won’t work, but they keep up the pretence. As Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, reputedly said: “We know what we should do. We just don’t know how to get ourselves re-elected after we’ve done it.” 

One hallowed solution to this conundrum is for politicians to distance themselves from difficult decisions by outsourcing them to others. The latest example is the report from Sir Howard Davies on airport expansion. Signs are that the Davies report, favouring a third runway at Heathrow while noting that expansion at Gatwick is also credible, will simply make the whole vexed question an even bigger headache for David Cameron. 

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There are plenty of other equally wicked issues, from immigration to Grexit, Brexit, the European referendum and Isis. Yet all too often the politicians refuse to come clean about the options and associated difficulties. When not farming out decisions, one favourite move is to draft in people from industry and commerce to shake up Whitehall, give government a more businesslike air and act as scapegoats when things don’t go according to plan. 

It is 45 years ago this summer since Tory PM Edward Heath brought in Richard Meyjes from Shell. His task was to assemble a team that would “inject corporate management skills into Whitehall”. After two years, Meyjes’ contract was not renewed, but by then his team had set up “programme analysis and review” as well as the Property Services Agency and the Procurement Executive in Defence. 

The military top brass reclaimed their fiefdom but, 10 years later, the government again turned to the private sector and brought in Peter Levene to get a grip on defence contracts. Plus ça change! Today, John Manzoni from BP is winning plaudits as Whitehall’s new chief executive. Meanwhile Sir Ian Cheshire, former boss of Kingfisher, appointed by the PM as Whitehall’s new lead non-executive director (or NED), has just done a performance review of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary. Sir Ian seems a powerful man indeed! Yet he admits that, while some of the NEDs are impressive people, they cannot be a panacea.

Sir Ian hopes to persuade departments to limit themselves to four or five priorities and “not smuggle in 27”. His predecessor, Lord Browne of Madingley, expressed the same concerns four years ago, though he spoke of 60 different priorities. Why are there always so many? Politics, of course. Ministers want to please most of the people most of the time. No wonder Tony Blair noted: “You meet lots of really smart business people but I tell you government is as hard as anything they do – and sometimes harder.”

Perhaps it is time for government to be more upfront about the difficulties it faces. Ipsos Mori carried out an experiment with Norfolk County Council. Some 50 local people arrived at County Hall thinking it a terrible waste of money, though they were vague about what it did. They then spent a day at the council – paid for by Ipsos Mori to ensure they were a representative sample. After hearing about year-on-year efficiency savings, redundancies and all the services it provided, they decided the council was value for money, and some were even willing to pay more. 

Says Ipsos Mori chief executive Ben Page: “The problem for public services and government is that this involves people spending a whole day getting information, asking questions and debating. The challenge is how to get thousands, let alone millions, to do the same exercise. Our estimate – admittedly slightly joking – was [that it would take] 40 years.”  

Yet there is an easier way. Why not make How To Do Government courses a compulsory subject in schools? It would be a long-term project but it wouldn’t take anything like 40 years. Pupils could be taught about the constraints on government, about what is viable and what isn’t, what is likely to be politically possible and what will never fly with the voters. It would help students be more realistic about government, to ask the right questions and to recognise dodgy promises. It might help to make them better democrats and appreciate that democracy today is not just personality politics. It might even force the politicians to raise their game. Ultimately, it could start to rebuild trust between rulers and the ruled.

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