Saturday, 2 October 2010

Why Do in 13 What You Can Do in 5?

The coalition government are hurtling along at breakneck speed reforming education, welfare, the health service to name just a few areas. Much of the inspiration to do so seems to stem from, of all people, Tony Blair. Blair has widely put it on record that his governments did not do enough in the time available to them - they moved too slowly and didn't drive reform anywhere near as far as they should have done.

There's an interesting article in the Guardian here, regarding Michael Gove and his sweeping education reforms. It forms the impression that Michael's reforming zeal is in large part inspired by the hated and discredited leader - Blair.

Michael is quoted as saying 'I love A Journey (Blair's recent book). I have never read a book like it'..

I suspect mischief from the Guardian in trying to position Michael as an unreformed, reforming Blairite as it were.

I too am reading 'A Journey' and one very key reason that Blair gives for the slow progress for government is that they didn't have a plan for reform when they arrived in government. As Blair explained, the Labour party in the mid 1990s had built a formidable vote-winning machine but they simply had not developed a detailed policy and reform process - so had to do it belatedly in government. They won the election in 1997 on what Blair describes as fairly vague ideas.

And, there's a very crucial lesson to be learned or to be more accurate, observed, from Blair's book. One of the really crazy errors that Blair made was a classic failure of leadership and 'management'. I will explain:

Time and again in 'A Journey', Blair recounts instances where he personally is doing the detailed policy work himself: As he says:

'I was working flat-out devising the direction of structural reform for schools, the NHS, criminal justice, welfare and the Civil Service'

Seems perfectly reasonable that the PM should be working out 'direction'. But then he goes on to quote examples of him working on a one-to-one basis with ministers such as Alan Milburn (on Health) spending days and days in closed meetings at Number 10 devising detailed policy.

It's a classic error of management. Blair was trying to do everything himself. He was undermining his ministers by doing their jobs for them. The inevitable consequence was a huge capacity constraint. Because every significant reform could only occur after Blair had done the detailed work on it himself very little could be done because he, like anyone, had only so many hours available per day..

To be successful, Prime Ministers and Ministers, (just like senior executives and managers) need to set direction and objectives and then delegate. If they try and do everything themselves they will fail to achieve their objectives, and worse, take their eye off the political ball. This was where Blair failed monumentally.

He failed to reform health and welfare education because he started too late without a plan and then he tried to do too much of it himself. But. He failed as a politician because he got so involved in detail that he failed to communicate what his government was doing and why. In fact, he got so engrossed in planning a war in Iraq he completely forgot the necessity of taking the public with him. He stopped winning the political argument and just carried on regardless.

Self-delusion crept-in. Because Blair failed to stress test his ideas properly and dismissed opposition to his plans as the foolish meanderings of the ill-informed or as inevitable barbs from political opponents he just believed in his own brilliance. He thought he had come up with revolutionary plans and ideas that no-one else was capable of forming and ignored the well meant warnings of others.

One of Blair's aids described this as his 'Messiah Complex' lending it a an air of acceptability (for a Christian) that was undeserved. And that irrational belief that only he was capable of doing it was what undid Blair so completely.

That is why Blair will never be remembered as the reforming politician who, with a huge majority, drove through massive public-sector reform. Because he didn't.

Instead he is remembered as the politician who took our country to war without taking the nation with him.

Which is why it is very dangerous for any politician to make the same mistakes he did, or allow themselves to be associated with Blair today.

Nuff sed.


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