With under 700 days to the next UK general election, political parties are busy developing their manifesto documents. In February, Labour leader Keir Starmer made a major speech laying out his “five missions for a better Britain”. How do these five missions relate to local government? And is the turn to “mission driven” government likely to work?
The five missions vary in their level of specificity and challenge. Securing “the highest sustained growth in the G7, with good jobs and productivity growth in every part of the country…” is a little vague but likely to be difficult, especially given we are currently ranked 6 out of 7 in terms of output per worker. Mission #2, “make Britain a clean energy superpower”, accelerating the move to zero-carbon electricity from 2035 to 2030, is specific but very challenging. Mission #3, reform of health and social care and reducing health inequalities, will require a re-focus from secondary (hospital) care to social care and addressing the social determinants of health. Mission #4 is about community safety, and likely to involve more community policing. Finally, mission #5 is to “break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage” through reform to the childcare and education systems.
Local government potentially has important roles in each of the five missions. Local education, skills and economic development functions will be critical to improving productivity. On energy, Net Zero requires at least a doubling of electricity generation by 2050, from decarbonised sources. Decarbonisation strategies need to be place-based, taking account of the geography, building types, energy infrastructure, energy demand, resources and urban growth plans. We’ve recently argued here for the key roles of councils in this area.
Turning to health and care services, local government clearly has leading roles – including ensuring place-based planning to address the social and behavioural causes of health inequalities. Analysis by the Liverpool and Lancaster Universities Collaboration for Public Health Research in 2021 concluded: “investment across the whole of local government is needed to level up health including investment in housing, children’s, leisure, cultural, environmental, and planning services”. Similarly community safety, child care and education are areas where local government could be enabled to have much greater positive impact.
Perhaps as important as the specific “missions” is the approach to governing which the party is proposing. Labour’s document characterises this as a move from top-down, target-led, short-term, siloed approaches, to government which is more “agile, empowering and catalytic”, working across the public and private sectors, and civil society. This, it argues, requires organising government around a shared vision, focusing on real world outcomes, concentrating on ends with flexibility and innovation concerning means, devolving decision making from Westminster, increasing accountability including central and local data transparency, and adopting long-term preventative approaches including greater financial certainty for local areas.
In some ways the idea of mission-driven government echoes the 1990s thinking of Ted Gaebler and David Osborne’s book “reinventing government”, which argued for a more entrepreneurial approach to the delivery of government. Their work pointed to entrepreneurial companies setting overall missions and goals, and then leaving managers to figure out how best to deliver these – for example, by providing an overall budget for a service rather than detailed line-by-line budgets which disappear if not spent by year end. The focus on managers rather than considering the perspective of politicians is one of the problems identified in subsequent evaluations of the reinventing government model, together with difficulties in sustaining the approach.
Mission-driven policies addressing ‘grand challenges’ of society are increasingly common, for example in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and various EU policies. Mazzucato et al recently argued that addressing such challenges requires strategic thinking about: the desired direction of travel, the structure and capacity of public sector organisations, the way in which policy is assessed, and the incentive structure for the private, public (and I would add community) sectors. Labour’s paper makes a start (albeit at a very high level) on thinking through these areas. The litmus test, though, will be in developing the detail and how far this engages with local areas.
Over the next few months, we will be contributing to the debate on the upcoming party manifestos with some research-informed thoughts on a variety of local government related policy areas. If you would like to be involved in developing these, please get in touch.
Picture credit: BBC