James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The White House has announced the creation of a new agency: the Office of American Innovation. According to the Washington Post, the agency is viewed within the White House as “a SWAT team of strategic consultants” who will focus on solving complex problems – many of which were raised on the campaign trail. It will act as a hub for ideas from the worlds of business, philanthropy and academia and looks set to recruit from these worlds.
Trump’s administration has had a chaotic beginning and it’s a reasonable bet this agency will never get going properly. Predictably, it’s being led by one of Trump’s closest allies – in this case, his son in law, Jared Kushner, who already has a powerful and broad portfolio in the White House. How it’ll recruit is an open question: Trump’s historic (and current) behaviour will put off many potential recruits – certainly those with any public reputation.
Nonetheless, credit where it’s due: it’s a fascinating proposal on paper and one that would be worth considering in London. While British Government Departments and agencies have been a source of innovation in recent years – with the creation of the Behavioural Insights Unit and now the London Office of Data Analytics, to name two examples – such innovation has been found in important but niche areas. For the most part, Number 10, the Cabinet Office and Government Departments operate as they ever have.
As I have written here before, one of the problems with the British form of government is its obsession with cultivating generalists, not specialists. People move jobs within and between departments all the time. Truly innovative policy design therefore rarely comes from departments themselves – and policy staff at Number 10 and the Cabinet Office inevitably find themselves worrying about the next big political moment (Budget, Queen’s Speech, conference season, even next Sunday’s papers).
A British version of the Office of American Innovation – presumably housed at the Cabinet Office – would focus primarily on apparently intractable domestic problems, although in time there is no reason why it could not look at diplomatic and security problems too. For example, it might look at establishing a contributory welfare system, improving productivity, encouraging start-ups, improving education for the nation’s elite pupils and attracting the world’s most gifted academics to the UK. There are many options and Brexit will throw up many more.
Such an office would only work if it allowed and encouraged outsiders to join government on secondment projects. Here, the British Government’s record is mixed. It’s not unknown for outside experts to come into Government but the typical external appointee comes from one of the large business consultancies and takes part in the sort of technocratic projects those consultancies specialise in. There’s a role for such consultants, but such an office was really going to work, they’d have to recruit senior academics, serious entrepreneurs and policy wonks to work on what are existential challenges.
We should keep an eye on how it goes. If the Office of American Innovation turns into any sort success, perhaps it will be marketable here. If anything, the more centralised British political system makes it a more exciting and viable project here.