What if bears had indoor plumbing?

The pope is a catholic, it goes without saying. But perhaps it would be better if sometimes he were not.

When papal elections come round, there is always a little comment in the press coverage to the effect that the college of cardinals can elect anybody they please – they don’t have to choose one of their own number and don’t even have to choose somebody who is already a priest. In modern times, it is of course inconceivable that they would do any such thing. One effect of that is almost unavoidably to make the inside of the organization more important than the outside, and that in turn may be one reason why the church sometimes struggles to find points of engagement with outsiders.

This though is not an ecclesiastical blog, so my interest is not in debating the strengths and weaknesses of the catholic (or any other) church, but in reflecting on how that approach to leadership is reflected in the UK public sector.

There are public sector organisations whose leadership is purely internal: the police and the armed forces come immediately to mind. There is another group where leadership has traditionally been internal but has become less so: schools and the civil service may be examples here.  There is a third group where leadership is normally provided by people from outside the culture and the history of the organization, most prominently politicians. That effect has been particularly marked in recent UK history: two long periods of government meant that in both 1997 and 2010, few incoming ministers had any past experience in the role: in 1997, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spent their first days in government as prime minister and chancellor; in 2010 David Cameron and George Osborne had each spent two years as a special adviser, but for them too, their first days as minister were in the two most importatn roles in government.

I have now been through two changes of government as a civil servant. Or rather, as it’s a process still with some time to run, I am now going through my second change of government as a civil servant.  Leaving aside the political changes, my experience is that they bring two things, both wholly to the good – energy and fresh thinking.

The first is very simple.  Government is a relentless and exhausting business. Over the life of a parliament, and even more so over the life of a government which stretches over several parliaments, the constant pressure of daily events gradually drains energy levels.  The second is a consequence of the fact that it is very hard to generate a new set of ideas while still in the middle of developing and implementing your first set. Governments start with a stock of ideas and find it hard replenish the stock as quickly as it is used up. Oppositions – or at least oppositions with a serious wish to be in government – focus on building up their stock of ideas because by definition they cannot point to their record of delivery.  Whitehall may not have the strongest reputation in the world for innovation, openness to new ideas and responsiveness to its external environment – but I shudder to think what it would be like if the party of government were constant too.

This is not an effect limited to politics. We all have a bit of it any time we start a new job, and anybody who has done that will remember the struggle to retain the sense of being an outsider, and the power of the devastaing naive question which that can bring. But even the sum of all those smaller experiences is constrained if we only move within an organisation or a culture which is familiar.  That doesn’t mean a mad merry go round of moving everybody into jobs for which they are unqualified (even within the mandarinate, that approach is less fashionable than it used to be): in my experience, a very small number of outsiders in the right roles and at the right levels can make a massively disproportionate impact (and while ministers certainly fit that description, they aren’t the people I had in mind).

So organisations where that does not happen naturally may be losing something intangible but valuable. Organisations where it is precluded altogether are cutting themselves off from a potentially powerful source of energy, and need to think about how they can substitute for it.

So, two conclusions from all that, one pertinent and one impertinent. The pertinent one is that we would do well to reproduce the benefits of the political cycle into the leadership of other organisations – and challenge the received wisdom that established expertise is always more important than the insight of an outsider. The impertinent one is to wonder who might make a good pope.

Comments

  1. The challenge is to gain the benefits of the creative destruction which outsiders bring, while ensuring these are greater than the inevitable costs.

    New people bring fresh thinking, but they also bring fresh personal vanities, assorted getting-to-know-you costs, and challenges for retaining skilled insiders and their knowledge.

    In the public sector, there’s probably an optimum length of stay which is longer than the historic mean for junior ministers (18 months or so?) and shorter than the duration of recent governments (18/13 years). And if GOATs are brought in, they need to be more or less full-time for a good couple of years to really drive change.

    I’ve always thought of government as a fishtank, with lots of dark places to hide and plenty of slippery, fast-moving inhabitants. You can of course get the fish to where you want to go, but it takes a bit of practice, a good net, or the courage to drain it all and start again.

    p.s. of course, there’s always the Steve Jobs counterexample, unless you count his time in the wilderness as his opportunity to replenish his stock of ideas (which he probably would).

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