Analysis: Michael Gove's lecture on 'The privilege of public service'

Despite the comparisons with the Black Death and the Spanish flu recently, Michael Gove’s speech on Saturday to the Ditchley Foundation asked us to return to the 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US. In particular, Mr Gove was inspired by the way the President ‘built from the bottom up’, catering to those most disenfranchised in society and restoring faith in democracy in America, building ‘the system, and society, that the free citizens of the rest of the world most envied’. So too, Gove argued, Britain now needs to rebuild and reimagine how society might look and, crucially, how Government should be run for the benefit of its citizens.

Gove’s comparisons with depression-stricken America show the seriousness with which Johnson’s Government views its task ahead. Indeed, despite listing some practical problems with Government, the speech highlighted more endemic, systemic problems that have led to a ‘growing gulf in both wealth and attitudes’ between those that govern and the lives of many ordinary voters. As Gove argued, this is a much-needed post-Brexit restructure that re-evaluates and attempts to get 'closer to the 52% who voted to Leave, and more understanding of why’ it occurred. Practical measures include moving Government departments across the country and reallocating energy strategy to the North and Midlands. This can be seen as an attempt to prove to those in the Labour heartlands that voting Conservative in December 2019 was the correct choice, and that their voices have been heard. It also suggests that the Government might be inclined to take a more ‘hands-off’ approach that devolves power into local communities and its citizens, also reflecting the ‘user-centred design’ initiatives found in private sector efforts such as Serco’s ExperienceLab. Gove’s talk of social inequality and poverty also steered away from the typical racial and cultural factors found in the city, and focused instead on ‘physical aggression’ and ‘tougher sentences’ that he believes these new ‘blue-collar’ Conservatives care most about.

Back in the halls of government, Michael Gove argued that all new policy must be data-driven and chosen based on complex modelling to prove its effectiveness. There needs to be a ‘rigorous evaluation of government programmes’ proving not only whether they are liked, as is the case with the National Citizen Service, but whether they are producing their intended results. Spending will not end but must be means-tested and proven to work. Talk of ‘data analytics specialists’ and ‘Senior Civil Servants with qualifications …in mathematical, statistical and probability questions’ will be familiar to any followers of Dominic Cummings’ blog, with its recent call for ‘super-forecasters’ and ‘weirdos’ at the centre of Government. This suggests that successful Government interactions will be with those that can effectively present data-driven, evidence-based results, a welcome goal also reflected in the Government’s ‘Outsourcing Playbook’ co-created with industry. Its emphasis on ‘proportionate’ key performance indicators that are used across the private sector is something this Government is keen to replicate in its own projects. Groups that are able to provide ‘anonymous’ effective data solutions for the Government to base new policy on will be key partners in this new future.

This focus on metrics, however, should not diminish any drive for much-needed new ideas, innovation and experimental policy. Gove also stressed the importance of risk.  Providing the example of his own time as Education Secretary, he argued that there were many things he got wrong, not least with the history curriculum, but that the failure was ultimately necessary for the overall success of his new GCSE curriculum.  Gove ended his speech arguing that a radical reimagining of how Government interacts and delivers results must be considered, and that tendering a Government contract cannot be pitched on qualities of familiarity and market share. This is a well-intentioned drive to make sure that tendering processes find the very best provider, and is also aligned with the universally agreed need for Government to take greater account of suppliers’ past performance in awarding contracts.  However, this desire for experimentation and the novel should not – and need not - come at the expense of valuable experience, and must avoid reverse discrimination against the much-needed expertise hard-won by some providers in the very challenging world of government services.

Crucially, this speech suggests that the Government is attempting to modernise and reinvent how and where policy is made and developed. Local communities might be at the centre of a new, innovative civil service that represents the education, upbringing, experience and needs of the whole of the UK. The recent news of Mark Sedwill’s resignation as Head of the Civil Service suggests that this Government is willing to shake up the highest levels of Whitehall to make real change. This call for innovation gives businesses with unique, as well as specialist sector expertise, an opportunity to work with Government to provide solutions in areas such as social care and others that have remained the same for many years. Although The Spectator’s James Forsyth does highlight that such shake-ups of Whitehall have been tried and failed many times before, the context of the Coronavirus has provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop and reconsider how public services are delivered for the best of the public. With the Government keen to invest in restructuring, it is vital that they are supported by innovative and experienced businesses to ‘build, build, build’.

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