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Mission-driven government: What has Labour committed to?

What is a 'mission-led' government?

A photo of Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer delivering a speech at the head office of the Co-Operative Group in Manchester, unveiling plans for a mission-led Labour government.
Keir Starmer has pledged his “five bold missions will form the backbone of Labour’s election manifesto”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has set out five missions that a future Labour government, if elected, would seek to deliver. The Labour missions were announced in February 2023 and set out some of Labour’s priorities for government.

What are missions?

The concept of 'mission-led' government builds on examples of local and national governments, in the UK and abroad, setting missions and organising themselves around the delivery of them.

Missions differ from normal targets in a few ways. First, a mission deals with a long-term and complex issue. They are set objectives to deal with a big issue. 

Second, a mission sets what the government wants to achieve as an end result, rather than the means to do so. Where government may usually set out things like spending, policy, and key stakeholders in achieving its goals, a mission focusses on the outcome. In theory, this allows for a more innovative and flexible approach to the mission. 

Finally, missions should include targets that are clear, measurable and time bound. For example, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals follow a ‘mission framework’. 7 CL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose Policy brief ‘Missions: a beginner's guide’, 2019,  Each of these goals include specific targets to measure the mission against. The goal to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” includes targets such as having no person in extreme poverty (earning less than $1.25 a day) by 2030.

Where does this idea come from?

The concept of missions and 'mission-led' government was popularised by the economist Mariana Mazzucato. While the concept and terminology may be new, the approach itself is not. The objective set by former President John Kennedy in 1962 to put a man on the moon by 1970 is an example often cited as an early mission.

Proponents of the idea argue that the challenges of the last decades such as the 2008 recession, planning for no-deal Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic, forced government to act in a crisis-response mode, frequently changing and dropping policies as political winds shifted, and focussing on quick fixes rather than long-term solutions. They argue that a missions-based approach will help government to focus on the biggest issues of our time and solving them over the medium to long term. 8 Labour Party, ‘A “mission-driven” government to end ‘sticking plaster’ politics.’,

How have missions been used?

There has never been a clearly 'mission-led' national government. However, the use of missions is increasingly being used by governments of various levels as well as by international organisations. 

At a local level, Camden Council is using missions to drive its work in the London borough. The council ran a commission between 2020 and 2021 to set four missions:

  • "By 2025, every young person has access to economic opportunity that enables them to be safe and secure.”
  • "By 2030, those holding positions of power in Camden are as diverse as our [sic] community”
  • "By 2030, everyone eats well every day with nutritious, affordable, sustainable food.”
  • "By 2030, Camden’s estates and streets are creative and sustainable."

The UK government is also using missions in some ways as well. As part of the government’s levelling up agenda, there are 12 missions to achieve by 2030. 

The Australian government has used missions through its science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, on issues such as health and wellbeing, and food security. Germany is also employing a missions-based approach in its energy transition (Energiewende) policy.

The missions framework has also been used in the EU as part of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, for the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, and the Scottish government’s energy strategy.

How does a 'mission-led' government differ in its approach to government?

Missions require a long-term, adaptable approach and will need to work across multiple levels of government. They are also intended to incentivise investment and effort from the private sector and civil society. While there is no clear blueprint for what a 'mission-led' government must do to be effective, there are some changes that government will likely need to make.

As missions tend to be focused on long-standing issues, the solutions will not be immediately apparent. In general, missions will require an element of trial and error. Traditional policy development can involve fully designing a policy from the centre of government in a single department with little wider involvement from other levels of government or stakeholders. There can also be a separation between those designing a policy, and those responsible for delivering it.

What are the possible challenges of a 'mission-led' government approach?

The need for government to work with a wider range of partners in the policy development process requires mechanisms for cross-departmental working, collaboration with other levels of government (including local and devolved), with the public and private sector, or more direct engagement with the public themselves.

There are also questions around accountability and leadership of missions. Where missions are cross-cutting, there will need to be strong accountability mechanisms. Any successful mission will require the support of the prime minister, but in terms of day-to-day coordination and accountability, there are a range of options. These could include political leadership from a senior cabinet minister, leadership through the relevant permanent secretary, and/or the appointment of a relevant external specialist to oversee a taskforce, or particular elements of a mission. 

What has Keir Starmer said about missions?

Labour has made a missions approach central to its campaign and plans for government if it wins the next election. In February 2023 Starmer launched Labour’s five missions. These are:

  • Get the UK’s economic growth to the highest sustained level in the G7 by the end of Labour’s first term
  • Make Britain a “clean energy superpower” with zero-carbon electricity by 2030
  • Improve the NHS by reforming health and care service and reducing health inequality
  • Create safer streets with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and police community support officers
  • Improve opportunity for all citizens through improvements in childcare, schools, further education and lifelong learning.

The level of detail in what the specific targets are, and how they will be achieved for each of these missions varies. However, these five missions are likely to play a central role in Labour’s campaign at the next general election. 

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