Having watched and scrutinised governments down the years, it is all too evident that new governments and ministers arrive in office with a set of expectations and then collide with reality. Good governments learn from the experiences of their early failures.
One common reaction from No 10 arising from the Covid-19 crisis is to blame the machinery of government. They say: “The levers of power just came off.” They blame Whitehall for being unready and then failing to adapt quickly. However, it is a dangerous fallacy to believe that just building up more mechanisms to direct and control from the centre will fix this problem.
All new prime ministers start by expecting to control more than it is possible to control. Frustrations make No 10 advisers hyperactive, ever more directive, controlling, even bullying. The effect is always the same. It leads to cabinet ministers feeling sidelined and hectored and senior officials becoming disengaged, resigned, even resentful.
Government is a vast enterprise, entirely different from an election campaign. It cannot be directed by a single controlling mind. Above all, it is a grand collaboration, within which hundreds of leaders need to be empowered and enabled. Failure to grasp this funnels too many decisions to No 10, which attempts to micromanage, strangling creativity and initiative in departments. It overloads those around the prime minister, who are too remote from those upon whom they depend to deliver their decisions.
But they are also immune from accountability to parliament and its committees. Disaffected ministers and officials are left carrying out decisions for which they are not responsible. Officials in No 10 lack the necessary subject knowledge and expertise, which only civil servants and others can have. If officials in government departments lack such knowledge, it is because they have become undervalued or even scorned by a political class that thinks it knows best and is too ready to assert its political authority over officials who raise difficult truths.
Large organisations are not agile and adaptable because they are run by a single genius. In fact, people who think that they alone have the vision and must impose it on everyone else tend to be more destructive than constructive. Whatever success such a figure might have is self-limiting, as they become isolated from those upon whom they depend to be effective. They stop hearing what they need to hear. Look at why Steve Jobs got fired.
Agile and adaptable organisations depend on leadership that is clear about its purpose. Good leaders gain the trust and confidence of the people they work with and recognise that most of what is achieved reflects the work and ideas of others. The most able leaders develop selflessness, whereas controlling leaders make it about themselves. The worst control freaks stifle other talent and initiative, suppress unwanted truths and finish up making the wrong decisions in a vacuum. Great leaders listen and engage those around them, welcoming challenge. They treat all truths, however bad, as good news and as an opportunity to learn. Look at what Steve Jobs had learned by the time he came back.
The government has looked on the defensive recently, mainly because of the nature of the crisis, but centralisation of power is not the answer. As this government matures and we start to pull clear of Covid-19, the prime minister and No 10, supported by the cabinet and its committees, can clarify its defining purpose, which makes clear what is expected of ministers and departments, while respecting their proper role.
• Bernard Jenkin is a Conservative MP for and chair of the Commons liaison committee