Mulgan’s Reflections on Power

Mulgan’s Reflections on Power

Geoff Mulgan, former head of policy at 10 Downing Street, has a piece in this month’s Prospect outlining what he sees to be the Lessons of Power.

He says:

After seven years at No 10, I believe that government retains a great power for good, and that politicians are as impressive, and ethical, as their counterparts anywhere else. The danger is not from hubris, but that governments will believe the myth that they are condemned to mistrust and powerlessness.

He offers eight key lessons.

1. Governments have not become powerless

Here he challenges the hollowing out of the state thesis:

It is widely assumed that governments have lost power—upwards to a globalised market or Brussels, downwards to the people, or outwards to the private sector and the media. This is one of the reasons why social democratic governments have reined in their ambitions, and I expected to leave government more conscious of its constraints than of its possibilities. But instead I came away convinced that the perception of powerlessness is an illusion. Strong forces do limit government’s room for manoeuvre [...] Yet the basic powers of governments have not diminished. [...] The idea that governments have become impotent is an illusion, albeit one that can provide a useful alibi.

2. Trust is the most important asset for any government

He argues that ‘Labour learned these lessons well in opposition, and concluded that it should promise only what could be delivered and to show no tolerance of sleaze. [...] Yet in government, these lessons were sometimes forgotten’.

Here, he argues, Labour’s huge majority in 1997 was part of the problem :’the modesty of Labour’s promises contrasted with the apparent enthusiasm of the public. And too often, the gap between a modest pledge and the public’s raised expectations was filled by grand ministerial rhetoric. On many occasions, government spending announcements were inflated or repeated, with the result that Labour’s impressive rises in spending on health and education have been devalued by earlier spin’.

Indeed, he worries greatly about spin, suggesting ‘The famous communications machine turned out to be expert at handling day-to-day rebuttals. But it was less good at changing hearts and minds in the manner of Margaret Thatcher—there is disappointingly little evidence of any shift towards progressive values amongst the British public over the last 8 years—and it was unsuited to building public trust’.

He goes on: ‘This matters because there is nothing inevitable about low trust in government. The public today is certainly less deferential. But in many countries, trust levels have risen’

3. Governments overestimate their power to achieve change in the short term, and underestimate it in the long term

Referring to the “strategic audit” conducted by No 10 a year or so ago, he says the exercise showed the UK to be doing well in some areas (economic growth, employment, CO2 reductions) and less well in others (R&D, productivity, congestion and inequality).

What struck him, though, was that:

‘the countries doing best on many fronts were the smaller ones of northern Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, rather than the favoured models of the past—the US, Germany, France and Japan. All had found distinctive new ways to combine open economies and political systems with high levels of capacity—particularly human and social capital. The countries that had seen the sharpest improvements over the last decade shared another feature: they had focused on the long term and the strategic. Most of the frontrunners in the latest world competitiveness rankings—Finland (1), Sweden (3), Taiwan (4), Denmark (5), Norway (6), Singapore (7)—contained specialist teams within their bureaucracies whose job was to look at long-term strategy and to challenge complacency’.

He argues that ‘When Labour came to power in 1997, Whitehall’s ability to think and act strategically had atrophied. The central policy review staff (CPRS)—founded by Edward Heath in 1970—had disappeared more than a decade earlier. With the wafer-thin majorities of the mid-1990s, No 10 thought in terms of days rather than decades, and the treasury was little better, scarred by its failure to understand, let alone manage, the rollercoaster cycles of the 1980s and early 1990s’.

He says that Blair ‘moved steadily to build up capacity at the centre’ (including through the social exclusion unit) and that ‘Over the last few years a quiet revolution has taken place, largely ignored by the media, which are bored by the mechanics of government. Each department has established a strategy team, often run by a senior figure from outside government. The five-year strategies published by all the major departments over the last nine months mark a decisive step towards a more serious approach to the business of government, and have generated much interest around the world, from Brazil and China to Russia and Japan’.

He argues that ‘Taking a strategic approach is difficult in any government—you rub up against pressures of tactics and politics, and can be undermined by personality clashes. But a combination of sound analysis, rigour on priorities and realism about capacities to deliver does pay dividends. This is evident internationally’.

4. Government must draw on independent knowledge

Lesson 3 flows into lesson 4, because ‘This partial shift to a more strategic style of government reflects a changed relationship between government and knowledge. Past governments drew mainly on ideology, instinct or political calculation to determine what to do. But now that there is far more evidence on what is likely to work in fields as diverse as penal policy and macroeconomics, the craft of government has become a bit more like a science. This knowledge resides in universities, in international organisations like the OECD or EU, and in government itself. Much of the evidence is banal, but often it can show quite counterintuitive results: that there is little correlation between spending on education and results, for example, or that spending on drugs enforcement usually strengthens organised crime’.

He argues that:

‘Government’s greatest successes have generally been in areas in which the knowledge base is strongest and where independent validators of knowledge, like the audit commission, are most powerful. So the decision to pass power to the Bank of England has made it possible for decisions on interest rates to be made openly on the basis of evidence and economic knowledge, with peer review and a remarkable degree of frankness about the uncertainties involved. In social policy, my main focus between 1997 and 2000, almost everything we did rested on a strong knowledge base: the new deal drew on the experience of welfare-to-work programmes in Scandinavia, North America and Australia, many of which had been rigorously evaluated. Sure Start drew on a mountain of evidence about the impact of early years support. Pilot studies designed to generate new knowledge have become commonplace, on the principle that it is generally better to test an idea in a small area rather than on the whole population at once’.

He qualifies the role of knowledge – ‘[it] does not exclude a role for values or ideals. The knowledge base is usually uneven and no amount of it can tell any government what it should do or what it should value’. But, he concludes, ‘it can steer it away from stupid mistakes and futile efforts’.

5. Governments have to renew or die

He suggests ‘All governments risk stagnation. There are natural cycles of growth and decay’. But, again looking abroad, he believes lessons can be drawn from countries where coalitions have been in power for long periods:

First, renewal depended on new people: at some point there had to be wholesale changes of personnel, sometimes including the leader. Nothing better symbolises renewal than a selection of younger faces to replace an old guard. Second, there had to be new stories, new ways of describing what the parties were trying to achieve and why. Third, there had to be new policies which embodied these stories. And fourth, there had to be a new way of communicating, since the methods that originally help a party gain power face a law of diminishing returns.

He says that Labour has attempted to do this in recent years (with the exception of new personnel), pointing to new narratives around children, empowerment and social mobility and attempts to renew policy with the five year plans. He argues:

After only five years in office, the Attlee government was widely seen to have run out of ideas. It is one of the great achievements of both Blair and Brown that they have sustained momentum, and are more often criticised for their excessive zeal.

6. Dynamic governments remain porous

Lesson 6 flows from lesson 5, because ‘Renewal rarely comes only from within’. He argues that:

One of the optical illusions of government is that those inside it think of themselves as the drivers of change. Energetic leaders do cajole, prod and persuade. Yet most far-reaching ideas and changes come from outside, from social movements and movements of ideas. Governments are more often vehicles than initiators. [...] This is why it is so important for governments to remain porous—open to the views and ideas of business and NGOs, public servants and the public—and why it is sometimes necessary for even the most powerful politicians to take time out to listen and learn. For the same reasons, the smarter governments around the world realise that they need to build innovation into their everyday working: through experimental zones and pilots, competitive funds and rewards for promising new ideas. And new ideas need time to evolve—preferably away from the spotlight.

On this note, he suggests that ‘For all the talk of control freakery, New Labour’s big tent has made for a more conversational style of government in which much more policy is offered in draft for comment and discussed with others than ever before’, but that ‘in some respects government has been less porous than it should have been. Instincts towards secrecy remain strong, and are reinforced by the threat of leaks to a lurid press [...] One consequence is that work is often done in small teams without adequate involvement of experts or practitioners, let alone the wider public’. In addition, he argues that ‘Excessive centralisation also remains a major problem’.

7. Governments need ideology; a governing philosophy

‘Most progress involves some change to absolute and relative power. It requires governments to take on vested interests, to use guile and clout in defeating them, and to draw on the energy that comes from a guiding vision and values’. He argues:

In some respects, New Labour has been deliberately non-ideological, emphasising what works and avoiding too sharp an ideological definition for fear of alienating parts of the big tent coalition that it assembled. It came to power not, as in 1945, with a strong consensus behind reform, but in the aftermath of a period in which the self-confident (and self-deluding) ideologues of Thatcherism had roundly defeated their opponents on the left. Yet New Labour’s leaders realised that without a governing philosophy it would be hard to provide coherence to the flotilla of bodies that makes up a modern state. So New Labour has expended much effort seeking to articulate its governing philosophy. The many summits, seminars and publications on the third way are testimony to this. The 2003 progressive governance conference in London, which brought together 13 heads of government and hundreds of politicians and intellectuals from all over the world, had no precedent in British history as an exercise in ideological export.

But, he suggests:

‘the job of ideological redefinition was constrained. Political parties exist above all to win elections, and during the 1980s Labour had become embarrassingly bad at this. The primary designers of New Labour came from communication and marketing backgrounds. They did a fine job of rebranding the party, recasting its messages and policies to better fit the concerns of swing voters. But what was on offer was not an ideology or a strategy of transformation. It was mainly a way of winning elections. Unfortunately, the very factors that made it a success as an electoral project inevitably weakened it as a transformative governing project. Despite substantial progress in reducing poverty and opening up opportunities, the big tent approach made it hard to take on the most powerful interests—the London media, the super-rich, big business and the City—that often stood in the way of progressive reform. Policies in areas as varied as curriculum reform, environmental regulation and the taxation of pensions for the rich were unnecessarily constrained.

He argues that ‘New Labour avoided the worst mistakes of Bill Clinton, whose desire to “triangulate” greatly reduced his long-term impact’. But he suspects that ‘if ministers had their time again, this is one thing they might change. More ideological clarity might have carried some electoral cost; but it would have given government more edge and impact and would have kept the party more united’.

8. All ideas have to be embodied in organisations

Finally, in something of a new institutionalist vein, he argues ‘We live in a world of organisations; ideas and values that do not take root in organisations tend to wither. This is why institution-building is essential for any political party concerned about radical change. Both Labour after 1945 and the Tories after 1979 understood that new habits and values had to be embedded in institutions’.

Here, he suggests that ‘In some respects Labour has been radical about institutions: it has implemented the most far-reaching constitutional changes for many generations; it has created new regional bodies and a host of new public services, like LearnDirect and Connexions. It recognised that the existing departments and agencies do not work well in dealing with issues like entrenched poverty, and that top-down structures do not respond well to more demanding citizens. [...] But in retrospect, New Labour did not go far enough. Its leaders had little experience of running organisations and tended to believe that if only you put the right people in charge, everything would be fine. Whenever there was a clash between the old forms of power based on the major public professions (doctors, teachers, police) and emergent new forms of power, the old tended to win, helped by their champions in Whitehall. The result is that despite some useful experiments, Britain still awaits a radical reformer who can recast the state to cope better with big issues like environmental change, poverty or localism’.


Much of this seems to flow from some recent arguments he advanced (with others) in a Demos pamphlet on Open Source (OS) Methods . In it, he argued there were three types of OS working, all of which could be useful for government:

  • Open knowledge. Projects where knowledge is provided freely, and shaped, vetted and in some cases used by a wide community of participants. In these cases the common value of the knowledge being created is the primary concern.
  • Open team working. Loose communities of interest that work together [typically through the internet] to build projects with a clearly defined end goal.
  • Open conversations. Extend traditional forms of public discussion, taking place online and capable of handing more participants in more effective ways than previously possible. Here process is as important as any goal

The arguments about the need for government to draw on outside knowledge, remain porous, and to maintain the trust of the public can be related, respectively, to the three arguments about open source methods.

In addition, these lessons for government can also be related to his thinking on networks and connexity. Another a Demos publication, Network Logic, contains a recent re-statement of his views on this issue. Here, he pointed to five key implications for government of this network logic:

1) Transparency – ‘government has been through a revolution in how information is organised. Much that used to be internal, the prerogative of management, is now external. Information has been turned inside out, rather like a Richard Rogers building. This shift was bitterly resisted by the professions and many of the experts in each field, who feared that the information was crude and
that the public wouldn’t be able to make sense of it. Yet having happened it is irreversible, and has turned out to be a powerful force for changing cultures of provision’

2) Holism – ‘the potential for governments to see how things connect. Systems thinking, and the possibilities of networks, are together pushing towards what we call holistic, joinedup government – reversing the logic of nineteenth-century functionalism, and the logic of the new public management which divided every task into component parts, separate functions or markets’.

3) Directness – ‘In the past governments had to operate through many layers of mediation, tiers and hierarchical bureaucracies. Now more direct relationships are feasible’.

4) Multiple levels – ‘the potential to see every issue, every task through many frames from the neighbourhood to the global. Governance now takes place at multiple levels – local, regional, national, European, global – between which there are few clear boundaries. Local phenomena, like asylum or drugs, or the pressures on the education system, cannot be understood or addressed in isolation from global events. Policy increasingly straddles old divides’.

5) Leanness – the first wave of productivity gains from information technology were exploited in manufacturing. Only belatedly did private services experience major gains. Now public sectors stand to gain even more than the private sector because so much of what they do involves the collection, processing and dissemination of information and knowledge; these lie at the very heart of government. Yet the realisation of these gains depends on radical reform of processes, structures and rules’.

In essence, much of his thinking seems to be about how a more networked form of government can be effectively steered. While he evidently subscribes to the Rod Rhodes style view that we have governance rather than government and that policy is made and delivered by networks, he seems equally clear that this cannot be simply read as disempowering the state. Instead, it presents challenges – adapting to an environment in which power and knowledge are more diffuse and transparent and where government, ultimately, is more open and exposed. Drawing on outsiders, building on evidence built up in policy communities, building consensus around long-term strategies and building trust through openness all need to be read in this light. In many ways, none of this thinking is particularly new. What is of real interest from a political standpoint, though, is his very clear view that in spite of this need to for government to be ‘porous’ – perhaps, indeed, because of it – government needs firmer anchors: a clear ideology and strong institutions reflecting its values around which networks act.

Quite whether it is possible for governments to reconcile these two sides of the equation – steering through consensus building and driving towards a clear vision – remains a moot point. Indeed, in a piece published on the Young Foundation about joined-up government, Mulgan says as much:

The barriers remain substantial. Harold Seidman’s ironic words remain a healthy warning to all reformers. The quest for coordination, he wrote, ‘is the 20th century equivalent of the medieval search for the philosopher’s stone … if only we can find the right formula for coordination we can reconcile the irreconcilable.’ There is, of course, no such formula.