Breakdown of the Grid and What Should Replace it – Policy Coordination in Chaos at Number 10

As has been frequently commented on in the last couple of days, Steve Hilton’s grumble to his own students at Stanford

 “Very often you’ll wake up in the morning and hear on the radio or the news or see something in the newspapers about something the government is doing. And you think, well, hang on a second – it’s not just that we didn’t know it was happening, but we don’t even agree with it!”

Is entirely number 10s fault as it had abolished the ‘grid’ system designed to do just that coordination

Damion Mc Bride

This ‘Upcoming Business’ document would be circulated by No10’s Strategic Communications Unit each Thursday evening, and would then form the basis of a Friday morning meeting to go through each item in the grid line-by-line.

I was chatting before Christmas to two relatively young, junior members of Downing Street staff …One of them answered: “I’m not sure”. The other answered: “I don’t know if we still do grid meetings”. Now, as I say, they were junior, but the idea that what used to be the second most important meeting of the week in Downing Street is now one that is barely on the radar of two members of No10 staff seems deeply worrying to me.

Now it appears the main means of coordination across government is no longer the ‘upcoming business’ spreadsheet, but a more business-plan like spreadsheet used by the cabinet office of the actions each department has agreed to to implement the coalition agreement.

There is a problem with this.  It is used as a tickbox document by civil servants, they deliver on the coalition agreement commitment  even if it is daft, counterproductive, out of date and irrelevant, cast a sigh of relief and get on with it. Then they make policy new policy commitments and announcements without Number 10 or the cabinet office getting a whiff of it.

There is a basic problem here.  A business plan is not a policy programme, the skills of programme planning are needed by government and business planning by delivery bodies (including ministries) once the policy has been agreed.

The basic structural problem that the coalition has is that the coalition agreement is a dog of a document full of gruff none evidence based ideas that certain policy measures will work without evidentail backing or clear performance metrics that can be used to assess risk and programme failure and reorganise the programme accordingly.

So what is needed is not a spreadsheet but a Primevera type database backed programme planning tool of the type used to manage the Olympics.

This would present several coordinated ‘views’ looking like spreadsheet lists but crucially keeping track of the links across government between policy areas and spending.  These views could comprise:

  • High Level Policy Outputs – such as youth Unemployment, Offender Reoffending, O level Test results etc.
  • Financial – the allocation of resources on projects to achieve agreed outcomes in zero based budgeting.
  • Policy Announcement Coordination
  • Evidence Base Coordination
  • Cross Ministry Strategy Coordination – for example agreement by the Transport Ministry on a new station to unlock a major new housing area – tracked as project dependencies.

Is it any wonder then that Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin in using 20C tools more suited to running a small family firm with with one aim (profit) have run into tehthe ground with a large complex multi-objective organisation like national government.

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