Comment 17 April, 2024

For missions to succeed, they’ll have to be more than just priorities

Patrick King
Senior Researcher

This article was published to mark the launch of Reform's new report Mission control: a how-to guide to delivering mission led government, which you can read here.

The language of ‘missions’ has become common in describing big, thorny challenges that require cross-societal action. There have been calls for a national mission to “improve the health of the nation”, “eradicate child poverty” and even improve the UK’s access to quantum technology. The Levelling Up white paper notably included 12 missions that would be used to assess progress and Keir Starmer has set out five missions he intends to govern by.

But to state the obvious, the more missions you have, the less you are able to prioritise each. And political focus will be a scarce commodity for any incoming government. So if Keir Starmer is serious about delivering missions, he will need to ensure they are distinct from the many other priorities that will demand his attention from day one: such as clearing court backlogs, addressing persistent absenteeism in schools, and resolving an ongoing financial crisis in local government.

The urgency required by missions means it is critical they are specific and time-bound. For example, getting the NHS back on its feet by providing “more care in the community” is an admirable goal but it does not provide a ‘North Star’ to deliver against. How much care should be provided in the community, how will this be measured and when must the mission be achieved by? To know whether a man had landed on the Moon by the end of the decade, people only had to turn on their TVs. What outcome would tell them that the NHS is “back on its feet”?

Crucially missions, unlike priorities, also rely on new innovations and breakthroughs. There were a flurry of advances made before the Apollo missions, such as the development of Saturn V rockets and entirely new materials, that laid the groundwork for their eventual success. By setting targets for missions that are too narrow or based on inputs, such as “putting 13,000 more neighbourhood police on our streets”, we risk closing off doors to innovations which are essential to the pursuit of missions.

Finally, the times when the State has achieved something truly extraordinary — like developing and rolling out a vaccine less than a year after the outbreak of COVID-19 — have been underpinned by an approach which empowers extraordinary people. If we try and achieve missions through the ordinary structures of Whitehall, with lengthy and bureaucratic processes to bring in external talent, and multiple layers of sign-off for decisions made by mission leads, they are bound to fail.

Innovation tends to occur on the edge of bureaucracy: for the moonshot objectives of missions to succeed, we also need a moonshot approach to governance.