Nadhim Zahawi MP is the former Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment. Stuart Carroll is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former member of the Vaccines Taskforce
In a recent Telegraph column, Nick Timothy reached a damning verdict on modern governance: “everything seems frozen by uncertainty, ignorance and fear. The understanding is not there, the ideas are not there, and the ability of the state to devise executive plans and policies is certainly not there.”
No doubt the country faces immense challenges, from the cost of living, via tackling the small boats crisis, to supporting Ukraine’s efforts to contain and counter Russian aggression. All that must be done whilst seeking to make the most of the opportunities that new technologies present for productivity and prosperity.
The state has grown in complexity to meet these challenges, and so too have the demands citizens make of the state. Conservative Home’s series on approaches to reduce the size of government will be a valuable resource in providing some of the ideas Timothy says are lacking.
Contrary to some uncharitable descriptions, the civil service delivers projects of immense complexity without the remuneration officials may find in the private sector. Yet too often, the Government-Whitehall axis does not deliver. This is despite attempts at reform. In May 2021, the Johnson Government issued a “Declaration on Government Reform”; twelve months later, only 8 of 30 ‘priority’ actions had been completed.
To borrow an analogy – for the snooker obsessives amongst us – Whitehall can feel like Steve Davis playing in a Ronnie O’Sullivan world at times (and that’s even after you’ve removed Just Stop Oil protestors from the baize).
A confidence to experiment with new techniques, and a sense of forward-looking urgency were some of the qualities that defined ‘Rocket’ Ronnie’s reign at the top of the sport, yet these qualities feel in short supply in modern governance.
If we want to bring an end to uncertainty, ignorance, and fear, we must rethink the delivery model of government. This is no mean feat, but we do have models to draw from.
Cast your mind back to Spring 2020. Alok Sharma – the then Business Secretary – had just delivered the news almost nine-hundred people had lost their lives over the preceding twenty-four hours from COVID-19. This was still then a novel pathogen, for which we had only a partial understanding and more limited defences.
Concluding his remarks, he announced the launch of a new “Vaccines Taskforce” (VTF): to “coordinate the efforts of government, academia and industry towards a single goal: to accelerate the development of a coronavirus vaccine”.
As we put it in a recent piece in the Express, you’d have thought it in jest if you’d been told that for £50 per citizen, a “Taskforce” drawn predominantly from the private sector would operate with a degree of independence from Whitehall, take (calculated) risks and secure 357 million vaccine doses across seven candidates in nine months – all under-budget.
Looking back, much of the legacy of the VTF is clear, paving the way for us to “reclaim our lives” and ensuring leading vaccine and therapeutic candidates were developed in the UK. Uncertainty was a fact; risk was inevitable, but the VTF recognised and managed both.
It would be inappropriate to suggest you could ‘drag and drop’ the VTF model to solve all our woes, but whilst its work was technical, its operating model and culture have far wider applicability as a case study in ‘good government’.
Its mission-led approach is applied in tackling the major healthcare challenges of our times: cancer, obesity, mental health, and addiction. The ‘taskforce’ approach meanwhile is being used to address older people’s housing, and the regulation of artificial intelligence.
With each of these initiatives, two features will be necessary for success.
First, we should learn from the composition of the VTF which brought together private sector, as well as technical and specialist knowledge, into a government body, reinforcing the importance of enabling external hires (and input) in improving civil service functions.
This is something Policy Exchange’s Reform of Government Commission has recommended in recent years, but swifter progress in embedding sectoral expertise is needed. As the former VTF chief Dame Kate Bingham has stated, government still has a “devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry, commerce and manufacturing”. There’s also a need to consider how bespoke private sector secondments could enrich the state machine.
How might this work? One option is to restore Extended Ministerial Offices, something that Policy Exchange and think tanks on the centre-left (including the Institute for Public Policy Research) have recommended. This would normalise ministerial teams which comprise officials, ‘external’ experts, and political advisers.
Secondly, we should learn from the culture of the VTF. The ‘centre’ must be selective. Not everything can be a priority for Ministers. Only a small number of ‘bets’ where you can operate differently can be made. Here, the clear mission and mandate provided to the VTF were critical.
Where it was evident vaccine uptake would be variable across the country, necessitating targeted approaches for underserved and vulnerable groups – such as the homeless – ministerial focus ensured it remained prioritised at the highest level of Government.
There were sceptics of establishing a dedicated ministerial role for Covid-19 vaccine deployment. However, experience showed the benefits of having a figurehead for such a significant operation and of the importance of a direct link to the Prime Minister.
There are many areas where the ‘VTF approach’ could shift the dial on key Government priorities. Take the task of enhancing the NHS estate. A recent briefing, co-authored by the Nuffield Trust and Policy Exchange called for “radical action” in cutting through red tape to enable the development of ‘umbrella business cases’ or strategic capital investment plans for swifter approval of schemes with pre-agreed criteria.
That would require external expertise in design and procurement being more effectively brought ‘in-house’. With NHS England assuming responsibility for the New Hospital Programme in July, other opportunities should be explored, such as devolving approval responsibilities for smaller capital schemes to Integrated Care Boards (ICBs).
In the world of April 2020, where perhaps more than at any time in our lives the world felt “frozen by uncertainty, ignorance and fear”, the VTF proved that government is capable of operating with an entirely different mindset and approach. Like ‘Rocket Ronnie’, it challenged convention in a proportionate, learned manner; operated with optimism and a sense of purpose, and delivered upon a clear target at pace.
Another injection of this spirit and approach is required now to revitalise and reform government and to let a post-Brexit Britain realise its potential.