Andreas Whittam Smith: Governance according to Tony Blair

In office he had shortened Cabinet meetings to an hour or so and used them only for briefing members about developments outside thier sphere of activity
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair, the former prime minister, came to the Institute for Government on Monday to give 10 lessons from his decade in office. He was asked to address "governance" rather than "government", I presume, in order to generalise the subject beyond merely providing an extract from his forthcoming autobiography. In fact, under this heading, Mr Blair made a valuable suggestion: that an incoming government should get in touch with outgoing ministers in order to learn what they were "trying to get to". In its first term, New Labour had regarded Conservative policies as wrong-headed by definition but then gradually began to see that some of them were reflecting inevitable social change and should be accepted.

The other day, for instance, Yvette Cooper, the former work and pensions secretary, launched a formidable attack in the House of Commons on her successor's welfare plans. She told the new Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, that he wants to "cut the support from the babes in their mothers' arms. At least Margaret Thatcher had the grace to wait till the children had weaned before she snatched their support". Good stuff. But my question arising from Mr Blair's suggestion is whether Mr Duncan Smith consulted the highly intelligent and impressive Ms Cooper as he took over his new responsibilities. What was she "trying to get to"?

The Institute, in listing Mr Blair's achievements, confined itself to mentioning the introduction of a minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information legislation. In the same vein, it could have added the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the devolution of considerable powers to Scotland and Wales and the granting of independence to the Bank of England to conduct monetary policy as it saw fit.

All these are undoubted successes that have brought substantial benefits. But none of them involves the delivery of services to the public. For the truth is that Mr Blair's 10 years in office were marred by repeated failures to deliver what he had set out to achieve. Thus, in offering us his lessons, Mr Blair puts himself in the same position as would Steven Gerrard, the English football captain, if he had chosen to give us 10 insights he had gained in South Africa. It would not be without interest, but it would be undercut by the team's poor performance. That is the position in which Mr Blair finds himself.

Mr Blair's first lesson was that governance is a debate about efficiency rather than transparency. It concerns the capacity to get things done. I am not sure I buy this distinction. Effectiveness and transparency should march together. If something goes wrong, you need the "audit trail" by which you re-trace the moves that led to the failure so as to find a better way.

I was more persuaded by the former prime minister's next point. "We are operating in a post-ideological politics," he said, "traditional left and right categories apply less and less. Rather the key consideration is 'open' versus 'closed'." This distinction is perfectly illustrated by the current controversy on immigration. The "open" argument is that we need the skills and energy of immigrants from outside Europe. The "closed" argument is that their arrival causes anguish to the resident population. A self-confident country would always prefer the "open" solution.

What was a bit rich, however, was Mr Blair's observation that people don't want command and control. Indeed they don't but that is exactly the system that Mr Blair employed in office. As he remarked in lesson number four – "the centre needs to drive, but not deliver, systemic change. Empowerment needs a strong centre." What spoils the former prime minister's case is that he was all the time engaged in two simultaneous tasks. On one track was public service delivery. And on a parallel path was the employment of sophisticated marketing techniques to maintain the government's popularity, a task that required Downing Street to preserve the purity of the "message" at all costs. This second activity demanded total control and gave Blair's administration its reputation for interference in every detail.

Mr Blair also had something to say about government departments. They should be smaller, strategic and oriented around delivery. However, in answering questions, he showed himself unrepentant about either the regular making and unmaking of government departments or the constant reshuffling of ministers. Anybody who really understood delivery would know at once that such changes always reduce efficiency for a period. They should be undertaken sparingly.

He was asked about the role of the Cabinet. In office he had shortened Cabinet meetings to an hour or so and used them only for briefing members about developments outside their spheres of activity. At the same time the all-important "grid" that plotted future government announcements was studied. Mr Blair defined the Cabinet's role only as the "ultimate decision-maker".

This seems to me contemptuous of Cabinet. I cannot see why it cannot act as boards of directors of commercial companies do. Executives bring policies to the table that have been thoroughly worked out and tested and require only ratification – Mr Blair's ultimate decision-making. But executive directors also regularly reserve certain decisions for the board. They want a full discussion so that from it a "steer" can emerge. That is also how Cabinet should be used.

Also using the analogy with commercial practice, the former prime minister argued that government should "remake" itself on a regular basis. He observed that commercial companies do this frequently. Looking back, it may seem that they do. But because abrupt change leads to a loss in efficiency, they tend to make a series of small alterations that overtime becomes a sort of internal revolution. Nonetheless, there is something in what Mr Blair says. Given the very different tasks that the new government has set itself, it is counter-intuitive to believe that the way government is organised doesn't also have to change.

Asked what was the most crucial aspect of the job of prime minister, Mr Blair replied "scheduling, the importance of managing your time". So I hesitate to add to Mr Cameron's burdens. But the new Prime Minister might find a discussion about governance with Mr Blair very useful.