[Editor’s note: Earlier this year Jill Rutter from the Institute for Government joined a group of peruvian thinktankers and journalists to talk about this very interesting think tank. She has kindly prepared a summary of her talk.]
Origins and leadership
The Institute for Government looks as though it has been in existence for a long time. It occupies an impressive building in a street housing lots of venerable institutions (see picture). It has made enough impact to be named in the objectives of the top UK government civil servant.
But the IfG is a relatively new addition to the London landscape. It was founded in 2008 as a charity with a simple objective – improving the effectiveness of government. Our focus is not on the ‘what’ of government – the UK has a vibrant think tank community from across the political spectrum and across a range of expertises coming up with ideas on what governments should do. Rather, our focus is on ‘how’ governments go about achieving their objectives –and how they manage the day-to-day business as usual.
The inspiration behind the Institute came from Lord Sainsbury – a minister for seven years in the last government, but crucially also someone who joined government from business – who saw scope for making governments of any persuasion more effective by overhauling the way government operates. He commissioned a blueprint from David Halpern, an academic turned chief analyst in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. They envisaged an institute that would produce its own research, but also offer learning opportunities to civil servants and crucially to ministers, potential ministers and those in parliament who hold them to account. That blueprint still provides the model for how the IfG operates today.
In total IfG has around 35 staff – a mix of research, learning and development and operations. Only a couple of the staff have PhDs. Senior staff are a mix of former consultants, civil servants and government advisers. Our Director, Peter Riddell, is a very well known political journalist.
We organise our work around five big themes: a more effective Whitehall (code in the UK for the people who work in central government), new models of governance and public services, better policy making, Parliament and the political process and leadership for government.
Since our foundation we have produced research reports on topics including:
- how the civil service is coping with the large cuts in running costs since 2010;
- how to make coalition government (something of which we have very little experience in peacetime in the UK) work better;
- how government should manage its IT;
- how to apply the insights from behavioural economics to policy making; and
- how the UK government should learn from the success of London 2012.
Current projects are looking at the accountability relationship between ministers and civil servants, the role of government departments when services are delivered through public sector markets, policy implementation – and our first annual survey of the state of Whitehall.
Learning and development
In parallel, we have an active programme of learning and development. One of the first things that Institute did which hit the headlines was to work with then opposition politicians before the 2010 election to prepare them for government – something that was very important after 13 years out of power. Now we work both with current ministers and with opposition teams. One of the unique offers from the IfG is to undertake confidential ‘360’ appraisals of ministerial performance – a recommendation in one of our early research reports where we noted that ministers get no routine feedback or appraisal – unlike people in any other large organisation.
Meetings and space
We also offer a ‘safe space’ for people to discuss issues in ways that would be difficult to do in an official building. Before the last election we held a series of seminars on how different countries had gone about earlier fiscal consolidations – well attended by officials from the Treasury and advisers to the then opposition. We have also held private roundtables to explore options for organising national security policy – not a subject on which the IfG itself had expertise, but where we could facilitate a discussion between insiders and outsiders.
Our purpose and impartiality
All this work is designed to achieve our charitable objective of making the UK government more effective. We cannot do that without credibility. That is based on two pillars – the quality of our work, and a demonstrated reputation for both independence and impartiality. The latter two are very important. We need to maintain our ability to speak frankly to government. Our core funding comes from a charitable foundation – and we rarely accept funding for government, and when we do, only for very specific pieces of work. At the same time though, we depend on access to senior decision makers for influence and also to inform our research. That means that we have to maintain relations as people who can be trusted. Striking the right balance is one of the constant challenges at IfG.
In some ways impartiality is easier. Our governance arrangements were established to ensure representation from the three major national political parties in the UK on our Board. We work with government and opposition politicians – and ensure that our external event programmes provide a rough balance between politicians of different political persuasions. The more common critique is that we are too aligned to the status quo and to the civil service.
The final question is whether we are having any impact. In some areas – better policy making, financial leadership, organisation of government IT, underpinning arrangements for the coalition and ministerial development – it is possible to see a clear link between proposals we have made and what government is now doing. In other areas our advocacy continues. But even where our recommendations are implemented, the question is whether those changes succeed in making government more effective. That is a long-term challenge: the Institute will keep watching.