Here is a piece I have done for The Guardian today.
I sometimes wish we had patented “The Grid”, the scheduling tool New Labour developed in opposition and subsequently used in government to seek to bring order and strategy to a mass of often seemingly unrelated activities. These days, most major organisations and businesses have some kind of grid system to help co-ordination, discipline and strategy. It seems the UK government led by David Cameron may no longer be one of them, however, or if it is, then just as it is not doing a very good job of meeting its main strategic goal – reducing the deficit – so it is also not doing a very good job of organising itself.
Cameron’s former right-hand man, Steve Hilton, appears to blame the civil service. His criticisms, of an organisation determined to do its own thing and ignore the needs and demands of ministers, strike me as wide of the mark. My experience is that if the civil service is given a clear lead, based on clear principles and thought-through planning, it is not that bad at delivering.
What it has not had, with or without Hilton in Number 10 around, is that clear lead since Cameron became prime minister. Instead it has picked up on the confusing sense of ever-changing priorities, and learned to follow the lead of a prime minister who is forever putting tactics ahead of strategy.
The grid must always speak to a clear strategy, in our case modernisation, in Cameron’s case … ? Its priorities must be clear. Once that is so, deciding how much space within overall government planning to give to issue A or issue B becomes relatively straightforward. That is what the grid was about. The main events, which would be slotted in at the top of the day’s planning schedules, had to speak to one of our main strategic goals. If they didn’t, why were we doing it? As the system bedded in, departments stopped having to ask obvious questions. They knew the answers because they understood the strategy.
It took time to get embedded in the system, and the civil service was an important part of that. Soon after the May 1997 election, I asked the cabinet secretary, Sir Robin Butler, if I was entitled to make significant changes to the government’s media operations. “Yes, they are expecting it,” he said. When we later established a strategic communications unit, and appointed a civil servant to run the grid operation full time, with someone in every department liaising with him, it was a cultural change for many, but by operating a policy of “maximum openness for maximum trust” we managed to secure buy-in from most departments most of the time for what we were trying to do.
The grid itself was a single page per week document that set out everything the government was doing, and anything else likely to require government response or interest. But just as important were the notes that went with it, where obvious questions being asked within government were hopefully answered.
The remarkable saga of Cameron’s European speech reveals the extent to which this system would appear not to be happening. Never mind outside No 10, nobody inside No 10 seems to have a clue about the answers to some very basic questions.
When is he making the speech? Where? Why? What is its strategic purpose? How does it fit with broader strategic goals? What are the main arguments he is putting forward? Who will support the main arguments and who will oppose them? What third parties are being lined up to echo his views? What are the potential diplomatic ramifications?
In other words, have any of the basics been done here? I can barely recall a speech that has had so much coverage not about what he will say, but where and when. The other thing about a grid is that important potential clash dates should be on there. So for No 10 to schedule a big speech on Europe without realising it was the same day as a major Franco-German anniversary suggests they are not covering basic research very well either.
A speech as important as this one will require concerted communication from other ministers, not least the foreign secretary, William Hague. I assume his trip to Australia has been planned for some time, and his presence there while Cameron speaks to an audience even now being rustled up by harassed UK diplomats in the Netherlands underlines the make-it-up-as-he-goes-along approach by the prime minister to a subject of huge national interest.
But the point in all this goes back to the fundamental weakness in Cameron’s DNA, absence of clear strategy. He has been Tory leader for more than seven years, prime minister for more than two. Yet his views on Europe are not well understood either by his party or the public. His planned speech, now being rushed out this Friday according to the latest date given, (doubtless subject to change) is a response to others, notably Ukip, not a rolling-out of a plan devised and developed by him.
To have had such attention given already to the questions of when and where, rather than what, underlines a prime minister having his agenda set for him by others, which is always a dangerous position for a politician to be in. The grid was designed to help politicians set the agenda themselves. This Europe speech has had enough planned dates to fill a whole grid on its own. What is clear from every word coming out of No 10 is that he is not yet sure what he intends to say, or why.