How to govern more effectively in a world where power is widely spread

This is a guest post by Nicola Hughes, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government. The article first appeared in the autumn edition of Outlook magazine.

Politicians never quite have the power they might expect when they enter government.

Take junior ministers. Having battled for election to the House and then rising through the party ranks to secure a ministerial post, they can find themselves with only limited ability to get things done. The former Labour Minister Chris Mullin gave a memorable illustration of this in his diaries, where he outlined the difficulty he had pinning down legislation to better control leylandii bushes in the nation’s front yards.

Cabinet ministers meanwhile can find that the brilliant policy idea they developed can’t get enough votes in parliament, is held back by European regulations, or is largely out of their hands as local areas, contractors and other players reinterpret it on the ground. Walking into a grand Whitehall department with a team of civil servants at your disposal might give the illusion of power but in truth, power in modern politics is widely spread.

There are four major trends underlying this dispersal of power I will focus on, although concentrations of power in the European Union could well be a fifth.

First, the dominance of the ‘big two’ parties, Labour and Conservative, is over. This is being highlighted at present through coverage of UKIP’s growing popularity but as the graph below shows it is a longer term trend. In elections in the 1950s the big two claimed the vast majority of the vote share but by 2010 it had fallen to just 65%. It’s likely the UK will see more minority or coalition government in the future. This is against a backdrop of cultural shift too – the public is less deferential, accountability and transparency are more important and Parliament has become more independent and assertive.


Figure 1: Combined vote share for Labour and the Conservatives, 1945 - 2010. Source: 'A Programme for Effective Government', Institute for Government 2014

Figure 1: Combined vote share for Labour and the Conservatives, 1945 – 2010. Source: ‘A Programme for Effective Government’, Institute for Government 2014

Second, devolution of power away from Westminster is here to stay. This can take a variety of forms. The referendum on Scottish independence showed the depth of feeling about greater powers for devolved administrations.  At the same time, politicians of all hues are advocating for a less centralised state and promising to give more control of economic and social policy to local authorities and city regions. Decentralisation of power is easier said than done and perhaps a sea change will only be realised when more fiscal powers are moved out of central control. None the less, calls for a less centralised state (and the UK is currently one of the most centralised countries of its size in the world) will continue.

Third, those in power have begun to realise that their ability to make change happen depends on other organisations and players.  There’s a complex array of ‘arms-length bodies’, for example, that deliver services, provide advice or perform regulatory functions. The last thirty years have also seen a boom in outsourcing of public services, with £1 in every £3 that the government spends on public services going to independent providers, ranging from small community charities to large corporates.

Fourth, the idea of open policy making has gained significant traction. A 2012 civil service reform plan argued strongly that Whitehall should not have a ‘monopoly’ on policy advice and allowed for policy to be commissioned externally. Non-governmental organisations should expect to have their voices heard in policy, although it is not yet the case that policy making is open ‘by default’. The Institute runs a programme, in partnership with the Big Lottery Fund, to connect Whitehall policy makers and people working in frontline services and trial more open policy making. Talking to those involved, it strikes me that many of the people delivering services find government policy to be opaque and confusing while the civil servants bemoan how little time they get to spend outside of SW1.

Political pluralism, decentralisation, outsourcing and open policy all mean governing differently. Some of that is about mind-set; politicians must recognise their limitations and avoid making promises to voters that they can’t then deliver in government. They will need to be open, compromise, collaborate and build consensus. Admittedly that’s not easy when the media loves a story of a good political row. But there are also practical steps that government can take to operate more effectively when power is widely spread:

  • If there is no single party majority, get some workable guidelines and protocols on how to work with other parties agreed.  Good personal relationships are important when working in coalition. But even if things seem rosy at the outset of a partnership, tensions and disagreements are inevitable over time, given that parties have distinct identities and priorities. Procedures and process can help. Parties should agree early on when and how they will communicate with each other about policy, how they will ensure fairness between parties, how they will reach joint decisions and what they will do if there are disagreements. If in a formal coalition, they should take time to get a programme for government right and agree when and how this will be refreshed.
  • Rethink the relationship between UK government and devolved administrations. Whatever the outcome of negotiations over greater powers for Scotland, the next government will need to create clear ‘rules of the game’ and open communication channels for working with devolved administrations. Under the current arrangements Ministers and officials don’t always appreciate the nature of deals with devolved nations, which can lead to breakdowns in communication (the Welsh government, to give one example, cite being consulted too late on legislation which affects Wales).
  • Get serious about decentralisation plans and learn the lessons from successful examples. Previous attempts to decentralise have not always succeeded – see the low turnouts for city mayor elections.  But decentralisation can work, as we have seen with the mayoralty in London. It is more likely to be successful when there is wide political backing, when reforms are salient to the public and when a clear ‘deal’ is on offer to local areas. If politicians are serious about decentralisation to local areas they should commit to it in their manifestos and as part of the 2015 budget process.
  • Manage public service markets more professionally. Whitehall must keep building its commercial skills and expertise to make commissioning and management of outside providers more effective. Particularly for high cost and complex public services perverse incentives, weak oversight and a lack of transparency and competition can lead to problems. Greater scrutiny and standard transparency requirements could help avoid this.
  • Create incentives and structures for frontline innovation. Government cannot and should not control everything from the centre. Take the vital task of reducing the deficit: the civil service has made all the cuts it believes are feasible within departments. Transformation of services is what’s required in the next five years and that will have to come from innovations at the front-line, not from top-down mandates.
  • Support an environment of openness, learning and adaptation in policy. Far from being a threat to strong government, open policy can actually improve it. Our polling suggested that the public wants politicians who take time to get their facts right and consult widely, for example when making decisions about infrastructure projects. Policy makers should be encouraged to involve a range of people in their processes, consult early and allow people, communities and professions to create their own solutions.

Governing after 2015 will be challenging, but the dispersal of power that government is facing can be an opportunity, not a threat.  It will require different processes and ways of working, but also a different way of thinking. Ministers who expect to come into government, pull a lever in Whitehall and see neat results will be disappointed. Ministers come into government, get to grips with the complex landscape and build effective relationships with other bases of power will stand a good chance of achieving their goals.

View ‘A Programme for Effective Government’ here –


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