Comment Blog 13 December, 2023

Making missions real: four challenges

Sean Eke

'Missions' have fully entered the UK political and policy lexicon. The 2017 Building a Britain fit for the future industrial strategy used the language of missions to formulate four “Grand Challenges”. The 2022 Levelling Up white paper set out twelve “ambitious medium term” missions. Earlier this year Labour announced the five missions which will form the backbone of their election manifesto.

Missions are ambitious in scope, long term and involve multiple different stakeholders. Given their ambitious nature, missions will require a fundamental change in how government works.

It is easy to be excited by missions when one looks at what  states have achieved when guided by them. The Apollo programme landed a man on the moon within a decade. The UK Vaccine Taskforce — with its three clear objectives of securing access to promising vaccines, making provision for international vaccine distribution and strengthening UK vaccine development — is estimated to have saved more than 120,000 lives.

However, numerous challenges regarding the practicalities of embedding missions into the everyday work of government require greater attention.

One challenge is mobilisation. A key feature of missions is their ability to set out a vision which galvanises not just government but, crucially, wider society and the private sector. Everyone should be working towards achieving the missions. As the NASA janitor replied to JFK, “I am helping put a man on the moon”. To succeed in setting out this vision central government will need to succeed at stakeholder communication, something it has traditionally struggled with. Almost 60 years ago the Fulton report noted that “there is not enough contact between the [civil] service and the rest of the community” and this has continued through to the present day, as set out in Jonathan Slater’s recent report. The ability to set out a vision which wider society and the private sector can mobilise around will be integral to the success of missions.

A second challenge is cost. Missions typically require a significant amount of state investment, for example the Apollo programme is estimated to have cost $25bn — equivalent to $140bn today. The UK government has recently found it difficult to finance major state investments. Projects are often delivered over budget, as is the case of Crossrail; or cancelled due to costs going over budget, as is the case of the Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2. This difficulty is compounded by the UK’s current financial situation, with taxes high and growth low. Thus, whoever forms the next government will be faced with limited money and ability to invest this money successfully. Serious thought is needed as to how missions can be achieved in this difficult context.

A third challenge is delivery. Given their ambitious nature, missions require innovation and risk-taking, two features which the civil service is frequently accused of lacking. Reflecting on her time chairing the UK Vaccine Taskforce, Kate Bingham described an “almost excessive desire among officials to avoid any suggestion of personal error” leading to “groupthink and a massive aversion to risk, which in turn held back innovation and the pace of execution”. Structures need to be implemented which encourage a focus on outcomes rather than processes within Whitehall.

A fourth challenge is accountability. Missions are long term goals. Unique mechanisms are thus required to monitor progress towards them and ensure accountability if this progress falters. Attempts have been made to develop such mechanisms for the target of reaching net zero by 2050. One such mechanism is legislation, with the commitment to reach net zero by 2050 enshrined into law. However, as a House of Commons briefing notes, “it’s not clear how the legally binding nature of these targets would be enforced if a government failed to meet them”. Another mechanism has been the establishment of an independent body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), to track the Government’s progress. But, similar to legally binding targets, the CCC has no formal enforcement powers. Mechanisms need to be devised which allow for monitoring without incentivising short termism, and accountability without undermining parliamentary sovereignty.

Missions have the potential to address the challenges facing the UK. However, this depends upon successfully embedding missions into government and improving the functioning of Whitehall. This in turn requires careful consideration of the four challenges of mobilisation, cost, delivery and accountability.

In the new year Reform will bring forward a report examining what changes are needed to how government works in order to allow for missions to be successful. Watch this space.