Think tank calls for mission-led, less top-down government

IPPR calls for an end to "age-old debate about whether a smaller or larger state", in favour of "a smarter state"
Keir Starmer unveiling his plan for a mission-led Labour government in February. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

11 Oct 2023

Government should be “mission-led”, setting a small number of public service missions, backing them with money, and empowering local leaders to achieve them rather than imposing top-down regulation, the Institute for Public Policy and Research has argued.

The progressive think tank has set out a blueprint for running public services in a report published to coincide with the Labour Party’s annual conference, calling for a shift away from target-setting towards a focus on a small number of cross-cutting missions.

The mission-based approach would aim to have "prevention, personalisation and productivity" driving public services, which it says would mean earlier intervention, more empowered citizens and resources used to deliver the best outcomes possible.

This approach would likely mean a government with fewer back-office jobs and more roles in local government and on the frontline, according to the report, The Smarter State – 'between the magic money tree and the reform fairy’ .

The IPPR argues that the crisis in public services cannot be fixed by the “magic money tree” – just throwing more cash at services – nor the “reform fairy”, where reforms are expected to transform services alone. Instead, it says both funding and reform are needed.

“The age-old debate about whether a smaller or larger state is a distraction. Instead, we should be aiming for a smarter state,” the report says.

The report includes new polling by Opinium, which showed 23% of the public think reform alone is the solution; 21% that funding alone will solve it; and 35% think both are needed.

The polling also shows low levels of satisfaction with public services, particularly hospitals and GPs, which more than half said were getting worse.

The report sets out a three-step approach to revamp public services:

  • Step one: Create a ‘mission-led government’
  • Step two: Make sure the money follows the missions
  • Step three: Create an ‘enabling centre’

'Guiding stars'

In the report, the IPPR says the “last serious attempt” to reform public services – New Labour’s results-oriented new public management (NPM) – is “running out of road”.

The report says targets “can drive narrow improvements” but “come with significant risks of undesirable side effects, especially when they are focused on inputs or outputs rather than outcomes”.

“These include gaming, reductions in intrinsic motivation amongst staff and falls in performance in non-measured outcomes,” the IPPR says.

But it says “guiding stars” are still needed across the state to ensure services are focusing on what matters to citizens, and that missions can play this role. Missions are more long-term, less focused on inputs and outputs and leave key actors space to develop their own solutions, the report says.

The IPPR says government should focus on four missions: make the UK the healthiest country in the world; make the UK the safest country in the OECD; every young person learns the basics and is in employment; and end child poverty in the UK.

Similarly, Keir Starmer set out five missions in February that his government would focus on “to end short term sticking-plaster politics”: Get Britain building again; switch on Great British Energy; get the NHS back on its feet; take back our streets; and break down barriers to opportunity.

To ensure the government is held to account, the report calls for new independent bodies in the vein of the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Climate Change Committee.

“This will help create a counterbalance to short term incentives of the political and media cycles,” it says.

The report also calls for the creation of a “mission framework” made up of core (outcome) and comprehensive (output and input) metrics of success to be embedded across government. Relevant missions and metrics would be embedded in the accountability mechanisms for all departments and all ministers should be given a clear "mandate letter" with these missions included. These missions would be passed down to all delivery partners and arm’s length bodies within public service silos, the report adds.

The centre of government should also be strengthened and redesigned around the missions, scrapping most cabinet committee structures and creating a “mission council” established in the Cabinet Office for each mission, chaired by the PM, bringing together relevant departments, the report argues. These councils would be decision-making bodies that lead on strategy and delivery, “building on what has worked before”.

'Smarter spending'

To deliver these missions, the report says financial resources will need to bolstered and redeployed to effectively drive reform rather than maintain the existing ways of doing things.

It suggests shifting the balance of spending in the four mission areas towards prevention, moving:

  • Health spend from hospitals to primary, community, social care and public health
  • Safety spending from prisons to community policing, rehabilitation and youth services
  • Opportunity spending from schools and universities to childcare, wrap around support and extended school provision
  • Security spending from benefits to active labour market policies, social housing and skills.

The think tank also suggests three initial reform priorities to ensure “smarter spending”.

It says the core "mission metrics" should be embedded in Treasury governance, with all significant spending decisions modelled to show their impact on the missions.

No.10 and the Treasury should also create a new "mission test" to ensure that spending is affordable, mission critical and long term, it said.

In addition, HMT should create a new category of spending – "prevention investment expenditure" (PIE) - to ensure prevention spend is prioritised and protected, the report adds.

An 'enabling', smaller centre

Finally, the think tank says the government should move away from “controlling top-down regulation” towards an “enabling centre” model where it empowers local providers to drive forward improvements in local services.

Government should “let local partners focus on delivery”, with much less interference beyond effective data collection and reporting, the report says. The IPPR suggests this could "lead to a reduction in central civil service headcount, alongside a growth in local government and frontline staffing and on the frontline". Trying to cut non-frontline roles and increase frontline roles has ostensibly been a focus of the Conservative government in recent years.

“This does not mean being weak on standards, letting go or simply hoping for the best. Instead, it means rebalancing the levers used to drive improvement, with the centre taking on an enabling and supporting role to empower local providers, leaders and staff who are equipped and supported to drive forward improvements in local services,” the report says.

The IPPR says when regulators identify the need for improvement in local places or providers, improvement organisations should step in to support local leaders to understand what is going wrong and how to fix it. And it says the centre should take a "whatever it takes" approach to supporting local areas that are struggling, offering additional resources and powers where needed to unlock improvement.

"Only when this improvement approach is deemed to have failed should improvement organisations pass back to regulators to consider the harder levers of regulation," the report adds.

Starmer's big challenge 

In Keir Starmer's Labour Party Conference speech on Tuesday, he used the word "mission" 11 times, and the phrase "mission government" four times.

However, unlike the IPPR blueprint, which seeks to marry spending and reform, Starmer's speech put the focus largely on reform, the Labour leader said he wants a "reforming state, not a cheque-book state". 

Summing up the challenge ahead for Labour, Harry Quilter-Pinner, IPPR director of research and engagement, said: “Keir Starmer has promised to be ‘bolder than Blair on public service reform’, but he will have his work cut out for him if he makes it into No.10. The public are dissatisfied with schools, hospitals and policing, and they don’t even think we have hit bottom yet as they believe things are still going to get worse. 

“Reform alone is not going to solve the issues – but neither is chucking more money at our existing broken public service model. Public services can only be fixed by a long-term commitment to bold, ambitious reform that enables preventative, personalised and productive services coupled with investment to make this happen.” 



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