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Putting the GOVE into GOVErnment: Consultation and his recent lecture

Gove Sedwell
Public servants need to understand the Downing Street approach to their future

At the beginning of July there were two important speeches.

One came from the Prime Minister – a typical bish-bash-bosh tour de force culminating in the much-trailed Build Build Build slogan. Significant on many counts and a clear signal of how his Government wants to steer the ship of state towards calmer waters post-pandemic, and post-Brexit.

The other came from Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the form of the Ditchley Annual Lecture. This is a more cerebral, vastly expansive and comprehensive walk-through Downing Street thinking as it considers significant changes to the way Government (well the Gove bit of it anyway) might react in these turbulent times. In the week following the unplanned departure of the Cabinet Secretary, this is probably compulsory reading for Whitehall mandarins. But aspects of it deserve wider appreciation, especially among those interested in public engagement and consultation even though neither word is mentioned in the speech!

Let’s start by summarising this long and dense lecture. Basically, the analysis part is a

re-iteration of common themes – what he calls “a deep sense of disenchantment on the part of many of our citizens.” He accepts that politicians are partly to blame for having succumbed to the pleasure of the “sugar rush that comes from announcing radical initiatives, unveiling dramatic overhauls, launching new spending programmes, ramping up this and rolling out that …”  And he also laments “success in Government measured by the sound of applause in the village, not the weight we lift from others’ shoulders.”

So far – straightforward analysis, and shared by many.

Then comes the paean of praise for F.D Roosevelt and his New Deal in 1930s USA, and Gove’s rationale as to why this requires significant changes in the structure and style of Government. He wants to relocate major Departments of State and recruit ‘decision-makers’ from “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”. That, of course, is not new. He then calls for a “broader and deeper pool of decision-makers.” He wants them to be “less southern, less middle-class and less reliant on those with social science qualifications.” A key paragraph reads like this:-

“The manner in which Government has rewarded its workers for many years now has, understandably, prized cognitive skills – the analytical, evaluative and, perhaps, above all, presentational. I believe that should change. Delivery on the ground; making a difference in the community; practicable, measurable improvements in the lives of others should matter more.“

Here is the echo of Dominic Cumming’s notorious New Year’s Day blog wanting to recruit “weirdos and misfits” and populate Whitehall with practical people. Current civil servants (and by extension local government officers, health managers and almost everyone in the higher echelons of public service) are prone to offer papers that are “formulaic, over-long, jargon-heavy and back-covering” Gove wants “tight, evidence-rich, fact-based argument … and deep domain-specific knowledge.” (Someone might whisper to him that they once had many of these people until across-the-board headcount reductions by the Coalition Government forced the best of them into think-tanks and consultancies.) There is much more, but the thrust of his argument is clear – that too many decision-makers and influencers are internally and process-focused, and need a considerable injection of real-world experience. They are too far removed from the lives of ordinary people and businesses.

We have been here before. In 2009, the once-influential Sunningdale Institute published a paper called Engagement and Aspiration: Reconnecting Policy Making with Front Line professionals. The authors had impeccable qualifications and made the case for a new generation of staff they called networked public officials – who might spend substantial time on secondment with stakeholder organisations changing places with others travelling in the opposite direction. All this would require a new approach to the recruitment and training of civil servants. Its analysis might have been broadly sound, but its timing could not have been worse. The Coalition axe fell on anything that moved, abolished the Sunningdale Institute and buried the Report deep in the archives of the unimplemented and forgotten.

However, we always thought Sunningdale was flawed. Many of the problems – and they are the same that Gove identifies – could be fixed if they took consultation and engagement more seriously. Policy-makers need to stop doing the bare minimum to meet the Consultation Principles and giving the exercise to junior staff, packaging it up nicely and enabling Ministers or Council Cabinet members to do what they wanted anyway with a certificate that says that consultation has been conducted. Maybe a few of Cumming’s iconoclasts might help here.

We suspect that what Gove is looking for is more evidence that assumptions are being checked and that the process becomes more aware of the likely impact, on what Roosevelt called, the ‘forgotten man’. A modest questionnaire in traditional consultations scarcely fits the bill for the kind of stakeholder or community input that is needed when important decisions are taken. The Lockdown has dramatically raised awareness of technology-assisted ways to hear voices that rarely ventured into the places where consultors usually plied their trade. We may well see a new massive Government office in Middlesbrough or Mansfield (Gove’s suggestions) but, frankly, new recruits are not needed for Cabinet ministers to start insisting on better consultations. Ironically, Michael Gove – especially in DEFRA, was better at consulting than many other Ministers. But performance is still patchy and the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast have often consulted rather better.

In fact, the Government’s tinkering with the system is still work-in-progress. We welcome this degree of thinking aloud for it lets the rest of us also think about the issues and potential solutions. One thing is certain. The perception that the centre is not performing well enough will be reinforced when the response to the pandemic attracts serious study. If there is to be a blame game, the manoeuvring has probably begun, but the future shape of government is too important for that.

In the meantime, it is crystal clear that if Ministers and other decision-makers are genuine in wanting to be served by people less likely to be subject to Groupthink, they can start by empowering – and paying for – a proper exploration of the issues by engaging better with those who know about it and are most likely to be impacted by their decisions.

The methods are known; the tools are in place. Only the will is absent. If Gove’s lecture prompts a discussion about this, it will be a useful contribution to the debate.



  1. The full text of the Ditchley lecture is worth reading for anyone interested in the breadth of his analysis and prescriptions for the future See
  2. For a fuller account of the Sunningdale Institute Report and the Institute’s critique of it – see Chapter 7 of The Politics of Consultation
  3. Aspects of Michael Gove’s performance on consultations was discussed in Tuesday Topic in April 2018
  4. Is this just a National Government issue, or are there echoes of the Gove/Cummings analysis reflected in the culture of your organisation? Do you agree with the analysis?


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