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What is 'mission-driven government'?: A new joint project from the IfG and Nesta

There is no blueprint for mission-driven government.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers a speech at Port Vale football club in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, as he unveils the party's policy on crime - the second of five national missions setting out the objectives for a Labour government.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has set out five missions that a future Labour government, if elected, would seek to deliver.

A new joint project from the IfG and Nesta will unpick what governing by missions, as Keir Starmer has promised a Labour government would do, really means – and how to make the most of it.

The Labour leader has promised that if his party wins power it would do government differently. It would be mission-driven, with a focus on five of the biggest challenges facing the country. But the party says ‘mission-driven government’ would be about more than just picking priorities. It involves rethinking how the UK is governed. Beyond a statement of ambition, what does that really mean? No-one is – yet – entirely sure.

There’s no blueprint for mission-driven government. There is no single way of doing ‘missions’. There are many examples of different organisations putting a goal, or a ‘mission’, at the heart of their work –including the UK government, which has done so in the past through specific policies or programmes. If Labour is serious about changing how government works, it will need to learn from all of these. 

Nesta, the UK’s leading innovation agency for social good – which has had a mission-led strategy for the past three years – and the Institute for Government, the leading think-tank on government effectiveness, are launching a project to do just that. It will bring together the best ideas from inside and outside government on the options for delivering ‘mission-driven’ working in practice. It will draw on the IfG’s expertise on what has really driven policy and delivery successes in government and Nesta’s expertise as a mission-led organisation. 

Together, we will look at the options available to government to define missions: how it can set targets, involve different groups and sectors in design and delivery, and the tools at its disposal and the timescales for change. The work will draw out insights about how to deliver specific missions and about the broader ideas and approaches that can make a success of mission-driven government. 

The way government works needs to change to meet the biggest challenges it faces

For almost a decade, the UK government has been in and out of crisis response mode, rarely able to look more than 12 months ahead – often less. Leaving the EU and then responding to the pandemic required an almost single-minded focus from the government, given the huge levels of uncertainty. And this period came little more than a decade after the 2008 financial crisis.

The results of these crises have left scars on our system of government. Policies are dropped, changed or replaced at an increasing rate – reflected, at least in part, in record levels of ministerial turnover. Government is also having to contend with a world that is changing more quickly than before and a media and scrutiny landscape that wants instant response. Local and regional government have been drawn into this cycle of short-termism.

Both Starmer and Sunak have said they want to break this cycle. Starmer wants to end ‘sticking plaster politics’ and Sunak has promised to move away from rhetorical ambition that hopes for headlines rather than fundamental change. 

The question is how. The missions set by the Labour Party are ambitious, even if some might be a little vague: decarbonising energy by 2030, building 1.5 million homes, improving service delivery in the NHS, sorting out the criminal justice system and improving educational outcomes are all noble, if broad, aims. Meeting any will be a challenge in a single parliament. Delivery sits a long way from ministers’ offices. It relies on different sectors of the economy and different parts of government – many of which have been battered over the last decade. If Labour wins the next election, to make tangible progress towards a new way of working within one parliament will require urgency – and a plan.

Missions

Our missions work looks at how government can work across departments and levels of government to deliver on long-term policy issues.

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The next government should start by looking at what has worked

The next government will not be starting from a blank sheet of paper. Government has delivered goals equivalent to ‘missions’ before and it can do so again: child poverty, rough sleeping, Covid vaccines and even the progress made to date on carbon emissions. All are examples from the last few decades alone. There are lessons to draw from outside of Westminster, too. Parts of local government are already delivering missions, with Camden Council’s four missions for its work up to 2030. Scotland, Australia and Germany have all used missions frameworks for policy areas from energy to health.

There is a basic set of fundamentals that any successful mission will need to incorporate. A clear statement of ambition about the outcomes to be achieved, with goals that galvanise activity and set incentives in the system. A closer, more responsive way of working between policy and delivery, with central government recognising that the best ideas on both might come from organisations well outside of its direct control. A willingness to accept that innovation often happens on the front-line, rather than in the wood-panelled rooms of Whitehall. 

The new project from Nesta and the IfG will look at all of these to draw together the key components of a well-designed mission and the most important lessons from inside and outside of government. It will then apply those lessons to two case studies.

Political party
Labour
Department
Number 10
Public figures
Keir Starmer
Publisher
Institute for Government

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