It is an irony of political leadership that you often start at your most popular but least capable and end at your most capable but least popular. Because all leaders learn on the job.
I did and therefore now with my Institute try to shorten the ascent up the learning curve for today’s leaders.
I came into government in 1997 full of enthusiasm and optimism with a significant mandate from the people and a majority in Parliament.
But I swiftly found that the skillset that brought me to power was largely redundant when it came to governing. The one was about persuasion; the other was about ‘getting things done’.
Over time, I realised that the core challenge was implementation—turning the great vision into the practical reality.
And I found that even the sophisticated UK system was excellent at managing the status quo but poor at changing it.
It was all agonisingly slow, replete with vested interests and with incentives that drove the system to masking problems rather than solving them.
So in my second term, with the experience of my first, I created entirely new structures that treated the business of government like any other business.
I created the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU), the first of its kind. It was critical in driving the significant reforms my government achieved in education, health, crime reduction and elsewhere. It also enabled us to embed and incentivise an evidence-based culture across government.
We reorganised the rest of the centre to make it strong, focused and capable—with specific units around policy, long and short term, strategy, and communications; brought in new personnel; and made sure my schedule fitted the priorities of the government.
This last point was vital.
The challenge of government is to keep focus on the changes you want to make, while dealing with the myriad events, crises and ‘scandals’ that you don't want but are obliged to deal with.
When I left office, and because of the focus we had had on Africa and our creation of DfID, I set up the Africa Governance Initiative in 2008, the work of which continues as part of my Institute.
Over the past 11 years, our teams have supported leaders to deliver social and economic reforms and improve efficiency and capability at the heart of governments in over 20 countries, including 14 in Africa.
With so many major elections in Africa in 2020, my Institute’s Africa government advisory team are thinking about how they can support governments through electoral transitions.
Here, then, are some key insights for leaders—presidents and prime ministers—and their top teams to consider when coming into office, drawn from my own experience and the Institute’s hands-on support to leaders over the years. We will follow up with a deep-dive on these insights in the coming months.
Try to do everything and you will do nothing.
The president’s aspirations for their country will set the agenda for the whole administration, so they must pick ones that are politically relevant and ‘citizen-centric’—and stick with them through to full implementation. By selecting just a few, specific priority goals, leaders signal to the rest of government, investors, other external stakeholders and the general public what they care about most. Leaders should also consider what policies and programmes they can maintain from the prior administration, provided that they are aligned with the vision.
2. Get the personnel right
Obvious but true: it’s all about the quality of the people.
Leaders need a top-class top team: a chief of staff who can bring organisational effectiveness; and capable, motivated people in each unit. The chief of staff helps to structure their office, selects and supervises staff, mediates access to the president, and manages information/action flows between the president, cabinet, other central government agencies and the rest of the world. The chief of staff needs exceptional management skills and excellent political instinct—but they must not be someone playing politics. The team as a whole should have the full confidence of the president, and most importantly should be ready to tell the president what they may not want to hear when they need to hear it.
An efficient private office transforms the leader’s working life.
The private office makes sure the president’s time is used effectively (diary management); manages the flow of quality information when they need it; and ensures decisions are acted upon in a timely manner. It’s also the president’s point of contact, not only for the rest of government, but also for the important stakeholders, investors and other partners in the country, so it must be staffed with people who are efficient, agenda-driven and discreet.
Structure the president’s office to govern effectively.
Beyond the private office, the wider president’s office should be structured around the three key functions of the presidency: driving the national development agenda, overseeing national policy and strategy formulation, and monitoring the progress of priority policies across government; managing the president’s political capital by building consensus among the political establishment to drive major reforms with political implications, e.g. around land ownership, tax mobilisation and civil service reform; and acting as ‘administrator of last resort’, maximising consistency and synergy within the government, and resolving problems and conflicts. These three functions can often compete, so the president’s office must ensure they all receive appropriate attention and resources from the leader and the wider government.
Be strategic in choosing the cabinet.
Members of the cabinet not only administer their respective ministries or agencies, they also drive the president’s agenda, and the cabinet’s effectiveness is a key factor in ensuring the pace and quality of its delivery. When choosing cabinet members, presidents may have to balance party politics with ensuring effective delivery, but regardless of this, presidents should put their most effective people in charge of their priority portfolios. At the start of their term, presidents should set clear expectations on priorities and ways of working, including agreeing collective goals, committing to delivery and building a collaborative culture. Regular cabinet meetings will help to provide peer oversight and drive accountability.
3. Focus on delivery
Roll out a delivery system to drive implementation of key priorities.
Achieving the government’s priorities requires a delivery function that designs, manages and monitors those activities that generate successful outcomes. This delivery function needs to have the president’s political backing and time commitment, and it must be staffed with high-calibre individuals. It should apply simple performance management and monitoring approaches and institutionalise regular performance reviews with accountabilities for results clearly understood. An effective delivery function will also alert the president, and cabinet, if outcomes are not on track and suggest mitigating strategies. The president must also ensure the cabinet implements institutional reform that contributes to wider government performance management and coordination.
Balance difficult long-term reform with quick wins.
Presidents should seize political momentum at the start of a new administration and take action that demonstrates a change in direction. The best time to pursue difficult reform is at the start of a new government’s electoral cycle, where political capital is high and the next election distant. Pursuing quick wins in pursuit of such reforms acts as a signal about what the government stands for. But they must be realistically achievable in the time frame and in line with the government’s priorities.
4. Communicate a strong narrative, not just a set of technical announcements
Embed strategic communication and citizen engagement as core functions.
Once in office, it’s all too easy for a new leader to default to responding to events as they occur, with proactive communication becoming an afterthought. Presidents need a strong, strategic communications function to deliver proactive, strategic communications that explain their vision and agenda to the public, creating feedback loops along the way, and incentivising sustained delivery at pace across government. This central strategic communications function must also coordinate communications across government to avoid clashes and harmonise messages, focusing not only on highlighting delivery successes but also anticipating challenges.
An edited version of this article appeared in Jeune Afrique and African Business in January and in New African in March.