Andrew Laird is a founder and Director of Mutual Ventures.
The Conservative manifesto will undoubtedly have fairness at its heart. The quest for a fairer society will be the driving force behind the Government’s social agenda if the Conservative Party wins a majority on June 8th. But i “fairness” will drive the social agenda, then “productivity” will be the watch word for the economy. I won’t go into the stats, but we are still lagging behind on productivity. For whatever reason (and there are a range of theories) when we in the UK spend an hour on something we end up with less to show for it than our rivals do. I find that pretty shocking, and a bit shameful.
When thinking about government policy, you might think the paths of fairness and productivity are unlikely to cross – but there are already areas where these two driving forces are very much pushing in the same direction.
For example, the Prime Minister has frequently stated her desire to see fairness in corporate governance through better empowerment and engagement of employees. There are plenty of studies which show more engaged staff take more responsibility, show greater commitment and take fewer sick days. As a result they are more productive as well as being treated more fairly. Theresa May has also applied this principle to the public sector calling for more public service mutuals (essentially staff-owned businesses which “spin out” of the public sector).
Good business leaders get this. Many think that applying commercial business principles to government is morally wrong – but we are doing a serious disservice to taxpayers if we do not. The majority of people in the UK work in some sort of business, and the really good ones are wonderful places to be and provide great services. Effective leadership in business involves setting a clear direction for your team, and then empowering and supporting them to use their professional judgement to get on with the job. People don’t want to be micro-managed either by an overbearing manager or by an over-bureaucratic system. They feel fairly treated if they are trusted to get on with a job they are qualified to do – and are more productive as a result.
Government at all levels should apply this principle. Whilst there are some really good examples, such as the growth of public service mutuals, this fairness-driven business-like approach is still the exception rather than the rule.
You can hardly blame public servants both in Whitehall and in local areas for struggling to respond to this. They have gone from the micromanagement that we saw under the government of Tony Blair (where pretty much every initiative was driven from the very top down) to the government of David Cameron where the approach was much more laissez-faire, with local areas empowered to develop their own solutions.
In my view, this more hands-off approach is the side to err on. But it has led to quite a bit of disparity, largely based on how entrepreneurial key individuals in local areas are. There are examples where some areas are making great progress on a particular policy areas (such as devolution of infrastructure responsibilities or health and social care integration), while others have yet to reach the starting blocks. It’s almost as though some believe that government will eventually revert to type, and tell them what to do – so there is not point putting in the effort.
The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Government does need to continue to empower local areas to develop their own solutions to their problems – but it also needs to provide a very clear set of expectations as well as the right support at the right time, so people do not just sit on their hands waiting for the next change of policy. This is a fair and balanced approach.
One place where there is unlikely to be any dithering is the West Midlands. The prospect of someone like Andy Street becoming mayor is hugely exciting. Here we have the former head of John Lewis (where staff are all part owners) who really get the link between fairness and productivity.
To show it means business on fairness and productivity, a future Conservative Government should start by addressing how Whitehall works. We need consistency across government, with Ministers setting the tone. Whitehall is often referred to by the “blob”, but I know plenty of civil servants who feel restrained by the micromanagement of Ministers. Whilst the government has been busy empowering local areas to go off and develop their ideas, Ministers sometimes micro-manage their own departments, insisting on seeing every paper, rubber stamping every decision.
This is understandable, and shows that the Minister is getting a grip on things – but often that grip is so tight that more junior minister and civil servants are left waiting months for decisions which are often time-sensitive. This is neither fair nor productive. We desperately need some entrepreneurialism in the Whitehall to set the standard for the rest of Government.
A new Conservative Government has a chance to show that the world is not all about Brexit, and that there is a positive and attractive agenda for change in the public sector with fairness and productivity at its heart.