Startup government, LKY notes #7: Good government needs great people
Intense focus on LONG-TERM RECRUITMENT & DEVELOPMENT OF GREAT PEOPLE was at the heart of LKY's success... A lesson ignored in SW1 but should be copied by the next PM...
‘People, ideas, machines — in that order’ Colonel Boyd
These are the last of my notes from this great book.
I’ll do a final post in which I summarise what I think are the most important lessons a) for people trying to improve government and b) viz future political dynamics, US-China etc.
LKY’s comments on people are directly relevant to:
1) the persistent failures of PMs and No10s over decades including the collapse of Johnson after core people left;
2) the structural inability of the media and MPs to understand and discuss this most critical issue — the low average quality of people in senior jobs — partly because such a high volume of very good officials are selected out (e.g look at how many of the best people who saved thousands in 2020 have resigned, been fired, returned to business etc, look at how many absolute duffers Heywood promoted who then proved disastrous in covid and got promoted/honoured, look at the outrage when I forced the replacement of some serious duffers in 2020 etc);
3) the Vote Leave project to do Brexit then change Westminster-Whitehall by bringing in new people, which we started (e.g look at the excellent Analytical Private Office) but the PM stopped reinforcing as soon as we left;
4) what the new PM, who will take over in 2022 (85%), should do to deal with these structural problems;
5) similar problems starkly obvious across the West. Not only were initial covid responses awful, even worse has been the inability of the old bureaucracies and parties to adapt, as we can see with the omicron debacle. Most fascinating, you don’t see Labour (or other parties across the west in a similar position) even try to argue ‘why didn’t the government apply intense focus to the bureaucracies/regulations/procurement/distribution/logistics so we had antivirals ready for omicron?’. The arguments that dominate discussions among highly competent people globally are outside the Overton window in Parliament. And Westminster has spent 10000X more time in 2021 attacking me and others for moving fast in 2020 — on things like vaccines, PPE for NHS, and fast tests — than it has demanding urgent action to prepare against variants. Over and over in 2021 I told MPs and media publicly — demand publication of plans for dealing with variants because 2020 shows the safest assumption is plans don’t exist or are terrible. Instead Westminster preferred happy talk about ‘getting back to normal’ (i.e focus on nonsense) and there was no scrutiny of critical issues like procurement of antivirals, that could have made omicron a speed bump instead of another huge disruption and possible mass killer…
One core lesson from LKY below for a new PM…
LKY started off assuming the natural process of politics would throw the right people up. He realised he was wrong. He switched to active recruitment. UK parties operate on the false assumption. The UK civil service is, by design and reinforced by culture and incentives, a closed caste that tries extremely hard and mostly successfully to exclude exceptional outsiders. If there is one thing that would improve No10 and the quality of UK Government more than anything, it would be a shift to active recruitment of exceptional people, quick removal of mediocrities from senior posts, and making senior positions ‘open by default’ — i.e open to applicants from outside the civil service. Of course, I’m inclined to accept LKY’s argument because I’ve made this argument repeatedly for many years and started doing it in No10. But while Westminster does not like listening to me, it is hard for them to dismiss someone so universally respected who controlled a government for many decades. Of course, Westminster will ignore this but a new PM with just ~2 years to get stuff done before asking for a fifth term and 18 years in power, facing ‘time for a change’, may realise relying on the old system that’s killed well over 100,000 people unnecessarily is not a rational strategy.
I’ll start doing some shorter more frequent posts on things like productivity, the coming Tory leadership contest, and other books. I’m talking to a few people to help re video AMAs in the NY, details early Jan…