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Conservative Party Conference

How can government get the job done? That was the question put to the speakers at our event, held jointly with the Institute for Government, on Tuesday morning. I know, I know. You’re thinking: what’s the problem? Doesn’t government always get the job done?

Ahem.

Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, certainly thinks that any party governing after 2015 could struggle. There’s the ever present chore of controlling public spending, of course, and at a time when the demands on public services are increasing. But to this he added the considerable tasks of boosting Britain’s energy supply, improving air capacity, and continued devolution. How will civil servants cope? With difficulty. As he put it, they can “lack skills”.

Priti Patel also talked of the wider context. The nature of government is changing across the world, she said. Many countries have run out of money and face new expectations. As for our own Government, she spoke approvingly of the work they have done to meet these challenges, not least by injecting more private sector nous into the Civil Service. But there’s an even bigger task for the longer term: “how you take the public on this journey”. If Government is to change, then it needs to do so hand-in-hand with the public.

The third speaker, Isabel Hardman of the Spectator, offered a journalist’s-eye view of proceedings. The Coalition has, to some extent, advanced the cause of good government. Nowadays, legislation doesn’t just appear fully formed from some office along Whitehall. It’s argued over between Tory and Lib Dem ministers, often in full view of the public. Things are more transparent. There was a caveat, though: “transparency isn’t always transparency”. Who’s to know when a row is simply manufactured for the benefit of its participants?

And then it was the turn of the minister in charge of Civil Service reform, Francis Maude. His driving principle, he said, is to “JFDI” – which he tactfully translated as “just do it”. The missing f-word hints at his frustration with a public sector that has been “terrible at encouraging innovation”. He’d rather that government was more like Silicon Valley, where people try things out and then quickly move on if they fail. “You learn more from failures,” he pointed out. And then you use that accumulated experience to deliver real success.

Maude’s other major theme was consistency. Reform, he said, requires consistency of personnel and of purpose. But what about consistency of governing party? He didn’t say it, but you suspect he may have been thinking it: Labour won’t do. This is a minister who wants to stick to his task. To JFDI.

[Image: Francis Maude event]

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