The author is Secretary of State for International Development, and is MP for Portsmouth North.
It’s no secret that those attending the Big Tent Ideas Festival, the brainchild of George Freeman, come from different backgrounds, sectors and political perspectives. But we all have much in common.
For a start, we are all optimists. We believe human beings can make the world a better place and we believe every human being matters. We recognise that diversity of thought should be cherished; it is what makes democracy work and societies strong. So we are not afraid of disagreements, or our own ideas being challenged. We shun the echo chamber that others might seek to create.
We see the value of common ground, for the common good.
We are peddlers of hope.
Our discussions have focused on the big issues of the day, domestic and international, but also the increasingly polarised and declining political climate. The public look at complex old problems and complex new challenges through media which simplifies both the situation and proposed solutions and demands immediate answers and results from politicians. They see the good old reliable rules-based order as less dependable. They doubt our nation’s ability to act on the international stage. And they have lost trust in their leaders.
They have witnessed corporate leaders stealing their pensions, avoiding tax, and lying about the impact of their products on the environment and your lungs. Commercial leaders have forced good and viable business to close, destroyed wealth, taken life savings into Ponzi schemes and preceded over the collapse of the financial system. Spiritual and charity leaders have covered up sexual abuse and let down the vulnerable. Political leaders have fiddled their expenses, gone to war on false pretexts, failed to grip the key concerns, and valued political projects over the concerns of the people that elected them. They have been completely surprised by the Brexit referendun result, and some of them now seek to undermine that decision and democracy.
Tech leaders have used our information against us. Entertainment leaders have sexually harassed their colleagues. Media leaders have falsely accused people of abuse, while allowing actual abusers to commit crimes on their premises. Our sporting leaders have been caught cheating and doping. Our medical leaders have chronically mistreated patients. Our human rights lawyers have been struck off for misconduct and dishonesty.
So no surprise that people feel let down by their leaders and their institutions. International norms and values are out of vogue. People are daunted and afraid.
There is a paucity of hope. Optimism is a pretty tough sell.
In recent times, our politics has sometimes failed to read – and therefore failed to lead – those it serves. This is as true overseas as it is at home. The consensus seems to have melted away. Just at a time when we should be pulling together. We seem to be pulling things apart and up the drawbridge.
That is how it feels. And how it feels matters.
It affects our ambition.
It affects what we believe is possible.
It affects our direction as a nation.
We need to restore trust, confidence and hope. We need common ground for the common good, between our local and national politics, between our regions, our devolved nations and our parliament, between the public and private spheres, between our political parties and between nations.
Ideas and vision are necessary, but they are not sufficient. People need to see results and to achieve them they need to take part. People have lost trust in politics because politics has lost trust in the people.
In government, I have held five ministerial portfolios, both domestic and international facing, and my previous career covers the public, private, charity and social sectors. I have brought people from different sectors into Whitehall departments to radically shake up how we design and deliver, and to encourage them to let go. I have met and sought out some amazing people who have achieved change for the better. I have asked them how and why. Why have they been able to be a force for good, where others have failed. And whether it is bringing silo services together to better serve the local community or galvanising smart people to save lives around the world, strikingly, the conditions on their lists are the same.
Politics and how we govern needs to change. The pace of change, opportunity and expectation demands it. So what does that look like and what are the new rules? Here are the headlines:
1) As well as ‘to do’ lists, leaders need ‘to be’ lists. Be an optimist, inspire participation and courage.
2) Don’t let your resources frame your ambition. If you do you’ll never deliver what is actually required. You have more resources than you think because, if you let them, others will help.
3) Articulate a mission to create an effort. Because people want to help, to come together and to get stuck in. Explain what it is that, together, we need and want to achieve. And, critically, explain how it contributes to the greater good, for example why greater productivity will benefit the workers delivering it.
4) Having asked for help, let people help.
The best, fastest and most cost effective solutions to problems I have seen have not been generated or procured by government. And it is often government at one level or another that is blocking great initiatives scaling or much needed development and regeneration happening. How we commission services matters. It has the potential to drive up quality and encourage innovation, or, if too prescriptive, the reverse. We should align our planning cycles to the private and charitable sectors, enabling us to maximise the resource and impact on our shared objectives. Enabling legislation must keep pace with scientific discovery.
5) Be alert, to the past, the present and the future.
Data and evidence drive policy. But history, situational awareness and imagination must too.
6) Plans – bad, planning – good.
Get on with it. Don’t wait and write a strategy, just make a start. Learn as you go. And ensure you are prepared – the most underrated leadership quality.
7) The West needs to get its mojo back.
The driving forces that have made the world a better place are the scientific advances, rule of law, property rights, representative government, a plurality of political thought, capitalism and the liberalisation of trade, consumer power and win-win international cooperation. But faith in those things is being rocked. We stand on the brink of huge breakthroughs in making the world healthier and wealthier. Without those things that have enabled us to make progress to date, we will fail to make progress in the future.
8) Listen and value people.
Politicians are quick to criticise behaviours in other sectors which create echo chambers, but we are guilty of that too, via a focus on swing voters and our core support. With the communications tools we have today there is no excuse for not reaching out. (I happen to believe everyone is a Conservative, they just haven’t realised it yet!) We are, after all, there to serve all. People don’t feel they are important – we don’t provide them with a seat or shade from the elements when we ask them to queue to visit their Parliament and, while we poll and think about what spending they would approve if, we need to think more deeply about what they, and generations to come, actually need.
9) Public vs. private dogma is dead
Politicians feel they need to educate younger generations on the merits of the private and social sectors. They should, but those arguments need to be relevant to today’s world not the 1970s. And we need to deepen civil servants’ understanding of the possibilities beyond their immediate sphere. There are new and evolving ways of getting things done we need to make use of.
10) New power must get out of its armchair
Activism is one thing, but we need active citizens as well as expert citizens. The Big Society had some successes, but they were the exception rather than the rule. We must inspire, harness and enable a greater contribution to the world from people than letters via 38 degrees.
11) Seriously small government
The logical conclusion of all of the above is that Whitehall needs to shrink and decamp, become more collaborative and nimble.
12) And finally: Values are the margin of victory.
To do what is required, we require politics to change. And I am optimistic about that too.
Matthew D’Ancona will be interviewing the author about this article at the Big Tent Ideas Festival later today.