One of the big questions when Boris Johnson won his stonking majority was who would really be in charge—would it be Johnson or would we have a Gove-rnment, with the Michael Gove/Dominic Cummings axis holding sway? The second big question was whether these two would be given licence to reshape the way government works—and take aim at the civil service. We are starting to get the answers.
On Saturday, Gove took time out from his passion for football (yes, really, alongside opera) and gave the Ditchley Annual Lecture via Zoom. He set out an intriguing case for reform, channelling FDR. “Inescapably metropolitan” policymakers, led by politicians addicted to the “sugar rush of announcements,” would have to change to bridge the gap between the governors and the governed, he argued. Government by “anywheres” needed to become government by and for “somewheres,” able to relate to the 52 per cent.
His prescription for how to improve government is frankly pretty familiar stuff. A workforce more data literate and less dominated by humanities graduates; delivery valued alongside policy ideas; more rigour in evaluating what the government does and greater ability to draw on evidence; more risk taking and more willingness to fail. Less churn among civil servants and more “deep domain” knowledge.
He also made a strong case for dispersion, spreading civil servants out from London around the country (overlooking—maybe this was one of the experiments that was tried and failed—the fact that one of the first acts of the Cameron government was to abolish the government’s regional office network). That would mean policy would be made closer to the communities affected, and also give new opportunities to people to join the ranks of policymakers. Decentralisation of power from London seems to have gone on the backburner since the far distant days of George Osborne.
This prescription is striking mainly for its familiarity. Very few civil servants would not say that most of these are quite good ideas. Indeed they could point to a range of initiatives, some working, some forgotten, that were all designed to do this. None of that means it is not worth trying. Again.
Some meanwhile might blink at Gove’s new-found discovery of evidence. Isn’t this after all the same…