Are we now getting more of the same? Do we really think that Britain will now get a proper government with another Conservative Party beauty pageant, just like the one it conducted in 2019?
British politics has been a chaotic disaster at least for six years now. The convoluted four-year Brexit decision making process was a political nightmare paralysing government and exhausting the nation. It was caused by faulty policy making conducted by David Cameron, a Prime Minister known for his blunder proneness, and through a referendum process which left many crucial questions unanswered. “Omnishambles”, a term describing his leadership, was dubbed the word of the year by Oxford University Press in 2012.
After him came Theresa May, a lady of integrity one tends to believe, who got between the millstones of the intractable Brexit process. Then the Conservative Party members, about 150,000 citizens at an average age of between 65 and 75 years at the time, with a curious horse-race-style selection process, eliminated one after another out of a gathering of ten candidates to select their new party leader and the new Prime Minister. Despite the well-known deficits of Boris Johnson in terms of his integrity, they chose him. The aim to keep the party in power appeared to trump what was good for the country. As a result, the selection process haunted the country for nearly three years now. As a crucial part of the picture in the December 2019 parliamentary snap election 43.6% of the voters (less than half) confirmed Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister, falling for his chutzpa and charisma, and through the election system gave him 56.2 % of the seats, a huge majority in parliament.
The decisive question posing itself for the nation now is: How will Britain finally get a Prime Minister of integrity and capability after the botched leadership of Cameron and the incessant daily government soap opera conducted under Boris Johnson? How is the selection process for the head of government to continue? Instead of just going ahead with the same old procedures, it appears useful to look into the pre-conditions for a successful selection process.
Only a sound decision-making process generates a sound government
As regards the selection process for the new Prime Minister one first insight appears crucial: Only a sound selection process will ensure that Britain gets a sound government.
To generate the government, we require, it needs to include two steps: First, we need to define clearly and transparently which personal and professional qualities we precisely expect from a candidate and second, we need to ensure he or she actually possesses these qualifications. Without effective processes dealing with these two objectives, defining which qualities and qualifications the leader of our governments needs and without an effective process ensuring that he or she actually has the qualities required, we will not get the government of the quality the nation needs.
The problem with the beauty pageant style selection process which the Conservative Party is about to arrange for the second time in three years is that it clearly fails on these two counts, it neither defines the required capacities clearly and transparently, nor does it ensure that candidates have these qualifications. It leaves the selection of the new leader of the nation up to a untransparent mix of personal assessments, preferences, sympathies, antipathies, and expected benefits for the party.
As regards the specific qualifications we must be looking for in the leader of a nation, integrity and capability indeed appear the two top requirements. In the 18th century Thomas Jefferson and James Hamilton already agreed on this point when they discussed which kind of leaders the newly founded United States needed. But what do we mean exactly with these two terms?
In the end we need to discuss these questions and come to a joint result. One key requirement concerning integrity, however, evidently means that the new leader takes his or her job seriously and serves the country and all citizens equally whatever their station in life. Ultimately, selecting a leader of integrity appears to be a matter of honesty towards the nation, of commitment to find the best leader for the sake of the country and not the party, of proper checks on the candidate, and transparency. What indications are there that a candidate puts indeed the country, and not himself nor the party first? As one sometimes hears, the best solution supposedly may even be to select a person which does not really vie for the job.
Regarding the second criterion, the capability of a leader, we also must realise that we will not get a leader of the quality we require, if we do not put an effective process in place to define which qualifications he or she exactly needs and if we do not ensure that the candidate actually possesses these qualifications. Which abilities does a head of government require exactly?
Know-how in Government Performance Management crucial
In aiming to answer this question, we will of course be looking for some standard requirements such as intelligence, analytical capability, leadership, the ability to get things done. I personally would add training in problem solving methodologies as an indispensable criterion.
One recognition, however, appears crucial in answering the question what the requirement of “capability” entails: It is the fact that a person can by no means run a nation by him- or herself, but that they need a highly effective government machinery, or as a more technical term, “government system”, to do the job. Unwittingly, when he says, that no person is remotely irreplaceable Boris Johnson is correct. One fundamental problem in selecting a head of government is that we pin far too much hope on the leader him- or herself and neglect the key role of an effective government system in the task of running a nation.
In the end, we cannot use another Prime Minister who thinks the fate of the nation depends on him or her alone. What we rather need is a leader who acknowledges the importance of a government system of the highest degree of effectiveness and efficiency, we need a leader who knows how to build such a system and understands how to operate it.
Concretely, a Prime Minister who wants to run an effective government must know how to build an effective Government Performance Management System as a tool to form an effective government system. What we must realise is that there cannot be an effective government system without effective Government Performance Management, just as we cannot have an effective power plant without an effective steering system. An effective Government Performance Management System is a causal precondition to effective government. If we want a government which is less blunder prone, and effective, we need to select a leader who understands the role of effective an Government Performance Management System and knows how to implement it.
In the present line up there may indeed be a couple of suitable candidates for the role of Prime Minister. But selecting one of them will not make a decisive difference. To ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of the new British government an effective Government Performance System is essential.
Open consultation process with society
But what are the preconditions for effective Government Performance Management itself? As a general rule, a Prime Minister will only then be able to establish an effective Government Performance Management System, if he or she incorporates all know-how in society and the world on the matter and installs a completely open consultation process to identify this know-how. One of the consistent problems which makes our governments so blunder prone is that they operate as closed shops, a small club of buddies determining what they consider good policy making. The precondition for a successful government is open consultation with society, especially on the fundamentals of how to organise a successful government.
In this context it is of the utmost relevance that already in 2012 a parliamentary inquiry concluded that government strategy making was, I paraphrase, completely unprofessional and would possibly cause serious harm to the nation. This happened now ten years ago. Yet, despite such a grave warning this fundamental problem at the heart of government has not been fixed so far, an incomprehensible oversight by the political system. The fate of the nation depends on a proper Government Performance Management System, ensuring among other things that the central strategy making system in government is effective.
The next steps: Parliament and House of Lords must get involved
The observations seem to be correct: Without proper processes for ensuring the politicians have the qualifications required for their tasks we will not get effective and efficient governments. Without an effective Government Performance Management System and a government operating on the basis of the principles developed by it there will not be an effective government either.
If we want to ensure that Britain gets governments of the quality the nation requires, then we need to create a process which incorporates these insights in the selection process for future Prime Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries.
For now, the nation seems stuck with the Conservative Party selecting another leader. How can we make sure their selection process contains the necessary steps to ensure Britain gets a capable government at least for the next two years until the next election? Obviously, the traditional selection processes are not working. They are not producing leadership of the quality the nation requires. We, therefore, need some fresh and out of the box approaches to solve the conundrum.
Since the fate of the nation is at stake, it appears that the representatives of the people both in Parliament and in the House of Lords should get involved in making sure the selection process for the new government fulfils the requirements of the nation. As a concrete step I suggest the formation of a cross-party working group of the elders in both chambers who set up a committee which draws up a list of the core criteria a candidate needs to fulfil. The working group then engages with the Conservative Party and ensures that their selection process is transparent, employs these criteria, and makes sure the candidate selected as the new Prime Minister possesses these qualifications.
It can be expected that the selection process then generates a new Prime Minister with a decent set of qualities to lead the nation. To ensure that future policy making is less erratic, more structured, and more effective than what we have seen in the past, it is crucial, however, that the Cross-Party Working Group charges the new Prime Minister with instantly setting up a proper Government Performance Management System and makes sure that he or she governs on the basis of the principles designed by the system.
For those used to the standards and practices of British policy making these proposals might sound unusual. Yet, the suggested procedure is not so extraordinary as it may appear.
Ultimately it is the task of Parliament and the House of Lords to ensure that government performs optimally and at the highest degree of effectiveness and efficiency conceivable. One problem of our political system is that both control chambers operate on the basis of standard procedures without ever investigating systematically, how they can fulfil this task effectively. Endeavours for a wholesale review of the British Constitution have been ongoing for a number of years with the overall aim to make the British policy making system work better. So far, they have not produced any results. Such a process might, however, well be necessary.
For the sake of the wellbeing of the nation, the focus of our efforts must be on making the British government as effective and efficient as possible. The two measures discussed here, ensuring that the leader of the nation just as the politicians working with him or her have the personal qualities and professional qualifications required for the task and making sure the Prime Minister governs with an effective Government Performance Management System, are key preconditions in achieving this aim. The citizens will certainly welcome any measure contributing to ensuring that their government performs as effectively as conceivable.
 Bow Group, Statement on average age and analysis of Conservative Party Membership (2019), https://www.bowgroup.org/policy/statement-average-age-and-analysis-conservative-party-membership-2019