No place like Home: running UK’s ‘department of state’

By Centre for Public Impact

Wednesday January 27, 2016

Jacqui Smith
Jacqui Smith

Overall responsibility for the UK’s Home Office is not for the faint of heart.

Security, terrorism, immigration, crime, policing — the list goes on. For Jacqui Smith, there was no time for an induction. Having moved into her new ministerial office on June 28, 2007, bombs were discovered that same evening in London and a terrorist attack occurred in Glasgow the following day — all too vivid reminders that governments should always expect the unexpected.

Smith, says, though, that hitting the ground running was made easier by possessing eight years of ministerial experience in other departments.

“In general, the role of minister is one where there is very little training,” she pointed out. “By the time I became home secretary, I understood the political and bureaucratic nuances, but it’s certainly a role unlike any other leadership position. Although you’re not responsible for the management of the department, as that is for civil servants, you’re setting the direction and being held publicly to account for the delivery of what’s happening.

“Therefore, you have to work through the way you handle this and handle the accountability.”

Wanted: police reform

Smith was appointed to the Home Office by Gordon Brown in one of his first actions as prime minister. From the start, she was clear that implementing a new system of neighbourhood policing would be a key priority. Under her proposals, local policing teams were introduced to all communities across the country. This would ensure that each community would have a visible, contactable, and accountable policing team, working with local people to keep their neighbourhood safe.

Also introduced was a new policing pledge to give every citizen the opportunity to be involved in setting priorities in their area. This evolved into 10 individual commitments that aimed to deliver a minimum standard of performance for the 3600 neighbourhood policing teams. They included holding monthly “beat” meetings with the public and delivering on response targets such as responding within 15 minutes of a 999 emergency phone call.

“It was a fundamentally different approach to policing,” Smith said. Responsibility for the delivery of these reforms, however, was very much a shared mission.

“My style is to try and take people with me, but they felt there were too many orders and targets coming from the Home Office.”

“It’s interesting, because you have policy responsibility for the police but you also have 47 chief constables who are very clear that operationally they are the ones in charge,” she said. “So the handling and bringing along of chief constables — we were aiming to deliver this style of policing in every neighbourhood in the country — was really important.”

This wasn’t a straightforward task, it transpires. “My style is to try and take people with me, but they felt there were too many orders and targets coming from the Home Office,” she recalled.

“Although I believe there is a very important role for targets in helping set the direction of travel, I pared it back and said that the number one thing for them to focus on was how they build relationships with the people they police.” In practice, this meant they were expected to form local partnerships in order to encourage the reporting of crime and develop communities where crime and antisocial behaviour were less likely to take root.

“I removed all targets apart from one central target, which was that they would be measured and judged on whether local people believed that the police were delivering on the priorities that mattered to them,” she explained. “This was an attempt to ensure they would be more focused on outcomes and relationships. I carried on visiting police stations as part of my regular programme of activity and, to my surprise, I discovered that despite getting rid of all these targets I still kept getting told that there were too many.

“What I realised was that these weren’t targets set by central government but by others — like chief constables themselves, who want to target a particular local priority.”

Delivery dynamics

Smith’s predecessor as home secretary was John Reid, whose description of the department as “not fit for purpose” has long since taken up residence within the British political lexicon. Smith recognised that, after his combative spell in the hot seat, a more conciliatory approach would perhaps ensure a greater impact.

“I followed John Reid who, for obvious reasons, had taken a robust approach to reorganising the department,” she said. “What I actually felt at that moment was that in some ways they needed to be built up again as a government department that could deliver. But I also took with me themes and insights from my other public service jobs — I was lucky to have worked as an education minister twice, and I was a health minister as well.”

“For Smith, delivery starts with a clear and transparent direction from the top.”

For Smith, delivery starts with a clear and transparent direction from the top. “You need to be clear, because what you want is going to be filtered by civil servants and so you need clarity about what it is you’re trying to deliver. This can change from department to department. For example, the Department of Health tends to be pretty much a command and control system — hospital leaders look up and the orders come from the centre. In policing, by contrast, there is a different way of influencing and changing things because of the chief constables — it is more decentralised.”

Getting the right team in place is the next priority, she believes. This doesn’t mean appointing civil servants to each workstream — that’s the job of the civil service leadership — but you need to have a good relationship with your top official, so that he or she knows to send for the best and brightest.

“Then, as a politician, you need to persuade the key players in the system where you are,” she added. “One of the criticisms I’ve said about our government’s approach to public services is that, in hindsight, possibly there were times when we didn’t take the professionals with us as much as we could have done. A bit more investment in getting them onside would have been very beneficial — you’re more successful in delivery when this happens.”

She is keen to emphasise that building bridges and cementing connections can deliver huge dividends within the policymaking process as a whole. It’s what good leaders need to do — whether they are in the public or private sectors.

“When I look back on my career I think that the most successful things I did were where I had invested in building a relationship,” she observed.

“The strength of relationships and the messages sent by leaders about their priorities is more important than I first realised. I almost wish that someone had said to me right at the start that relationships are fundamental to effective leadership — political or otherwise. I think we have tended to prioritise hard measures and methods of management and not recognised the significance of the cultural and relationship-building aspects of the job.”

In the arena

While no longer a minister, or indeed a parliamentarian, Smith today remains an active voice on the UK scene — much in demand as a media commentator and advisor in the UK and overseas, roles she juggles with her position as chair of two National Health Service trusts in her native Birmingham. It’s clear she is relishing the opportunity to deploy her government experiences in a more local context.

“I hope that what I bring is an understanding of where policy ideas are coming from and identifying the really important thing that ministers are trying to achieve,” she explained. “It’s not my job to act against the democratically elected secretary of state for health but, equally, I don’t think we have to kowtow to every regulatory burden placed on us. I think I am probably in a strong position to identify the key strategic imperatives and key priorities.”

She is also keen to help identify and extend examples of good leadership within the health service. “Successive governments have thought they could replace leadership by regulation and direction, but you can’t regulate good leadership into the NHS,” she said.

“What is crucial is that, when you identify good leaders, make more use of them — share their insights far and wide. Use them to influence the system much more widely – and this is just as applicable for government as a whole. If you do so, a far better impact will follow.”

This article was first published at the Centre for Public Impact

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