In the first of a 3-part article aimed at stimulating debate, Carl Richardson responds to a challenge from the Prime Minister.
This call to action by Boris Johnson in an in-depth profile by Tom McTague that appeared in the July edition of the venerable American publication ‘The Atlantic’, followed a passage where the Prime Minister vowed to “use the power of government to reinvigorate industry and boost growth outside London…ordering civil servants to be more creative and more confident around who we choose to back”.
This, he added, would ensure that Britain was “nimble” in its thinking and approach in the years ahead.
Taking the Prime Minister at his word, and without wanting to tell our civil servants – who remain the envy of the world - how to do their jobs, this challenge leads us to think about a whole series of ideas that could help the machinery of government to meet the Prime Minister’s call. These come from the perspective of a West Midlands business that has been fortunate to have enjoyed a measure of success over the past seventy years of trading, and, while we now operate in a number of countries around the world, remains proud of its roots and always seeks to do its bit to support the UK.
In no particular order, and by no means exhaustive, we thought the following ideas may help stimulate debate to progress both the levelling up agenda and boost overall economic growth:
• Ministerial certainty - Why not keep Trade Ministers, and others in roles directly connected to business, in position for the duration of a Parliament so that they can become experts on their briefs rather than subject to the “pass-the-parcel Ministerial positions merry-go-round” that runs the risk of leaving these key posts lacking either experienced leadership or the long-term relationships that are vital when potentially large sums of money are being invested. Stability and continuity are the watch words here in order to help bring about the best outcomes for our businesses, especially in these early post-Brexit years when there is so very much more to be done on the international front.
Some might say that this idea could be extended to all senior Ministerial appointments. Others would counter with valid examples of why it might be impractical in reality or unnecessary due to the experience of the civil servants who support Ministers. With the benefit of hard-won business practices under our belt, surely the idea is worth consideration if we really want to create the conditions and outcomes to benefit our businesses best as we build new trading relationships with rapidly growing economies throughout the world?
• Look within and beyond Westminster - Talking of Ministers, why not think about selecting them from beyond the 650 MPs who sit in the House of Commons and 792 people in the House of Lords? When you take into consideration party affiliations that gives the PM a pool of roughly 800 people from whom to pick close to 120 Ministers. Whilst Westminster is full of many experienced people including serving ministers, and retired generals, archbishops and judges, the simple maths hardly indicates that this is the most sensible way of ensuring that government is packed full of the best-in-class talent that the country has to offer. Why not look beyond tradition and Westminster and allow the PM to choose ministers from across the country? It was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, who pointed out in a July letter to The Times, that this would require no constitutional or legal change, just a tweak to Commons rules. While this is certainly not a new idea, indeed Gordon Brown attempted something similar with his ‘Government of all the Talents’ (GOAT) which saw the likes of Sir Ara Darzi, Sir Digby Jones and Sir Alan West brought into his first cabinet when he entered Number 10 in 2007, it continues to feel as though there must be a way to make this approach work effectively. While history may regard Brown’s efforts as only a partial success, maybe more could be done in future to help ensure those entering the Cabinet from outside the Westminster bubble are set up to succeed, with enough support and mentoring to help them navigate through a system which Digby Jones described as being ‘designed to take the initiative out of a junior minister.’ Imagine the possibilities if we could better harness some of the incredible talent and brains in the private sector and link them into Government? Imagine Dragon’s Den Peter Jones as Business Minister, Professor Brian Cox as Science Minister, Tim Berners-Lee as Digital Minister or even Andrew Lloyd Webber as Culture Minister?
• Minister for FAANGs (Facebook/Amazon/Apple/Netflix/Google) – Staying on the subject of Ministers, in an age when the market capitalisation of these companies would individually rank them among the top 20 countries in the world by GDP, and Jeff Bezos is offering NASA $2 billion to help them fund plans to return to the moon, ought we not consider creating some new roles (or even departments) in Government, dedicated to understanding and engaging with these behemoths to a far greater extent than we do at present? This would ensure that we are putting sufficient focus and resource into areas where the country might secure a fantastic return on our time and money, given the ambitions of these firms? While I am aware that notable figures such as the former Ambassador to the US, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, have held roles such as ‘Special Envoy’ on data sharing in recent governments, I don’t believe that our ministerial structure has changed sufficiently to recognise the growing scale and importance of these digital giants. At a time when the Civil Service headcount across the various government ministries is well over 400,000 people, with close to 11,000 in BEIS alone, should we not be thinking about how we can efficiently deploy resource to support a Minister for FAANGs before too long, before a lack of focus or attention on these businesses comes back to bite us as a country?
The world is indeed moving faster than ever, and we absolutely agree with the Prime Minister’s assessment that, as a country, we therefore need to move faster with it. As everyone involved in business knows, you cannot afford to stand still, and have to constantly be looking to develop, evolve and improve all aspects of what you do if you want to achieve sustained success. This piece represents a few thoughts and ideas to help stimulate debate and contribute to the task of ensuring we are indeed as nimble as possible in our thinking and approach in the years ahead.
Parts II & III of this article will be published on www.richardsons.co.uk in the coming weeks.
For more information, please contact Paul Faulkner at firstname.lastname@example.org