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Mission Government: Why Starmer must think bigger and bigger if he wants real change

Insane targets, missions CEOs and big thinking – this is the framework Keir Starmer must adopt if he wants to make real change, writes Patrick King

Achieving zero-carbon electricity within six years and securing the highest sustained growth in the G7 are admirably ambitious goals for a future Labour government to meet. They, along with three other ‘missions’, form the backbone of Starmer’s election offer. But if the man hoping to be PM in a matter of months is to succeed in delivering them, he’s going to need a plan – and that plan can’t be left to Whitehall.

The times when the state has delivered something truly extraordinary – like landing a man on the moon less than a decade after committing to do so, or delivering a vaccine within a year of the outbreak of a pandemic – have been characterised by radically different ways of working.

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They have demanded an unrelenting commitment, which empowers the very best people to achieve previously unimaginable outcomes. And they have been built on cross-sector partnerships, leveraging public and private finance. The Apollo missions involved over 20,000 organisations and research institutes and represented five per cent of US GDP.

One place to start would be unleashing public research and development (R&D) funding to fast-track the delivery of missions. In a new Reform paper, we recommend that Starmer instructs UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which distributes over £5bn of public R&D money annually, to align its activity towards his missions, with a minimum envelope of funding committed to each one.

This would bring the UK in line with international counterparts, like Australia and Finland, which already target public R&D money at solving ‘wicked challenges’ like climate change and drug resistance – challenges which we know are virtually impossible to solve without new scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Labour has been clear that it is government’s role to “crowd in the private investment that allows new industries to take off”. For a cash-strapped administration looking for ways to do this, reprioritising public R&D funding would be a potentially transformative move.

To provide that relentless drive towards mission success, Starmer should also personally appoint ‘mission CEOs’ from outside the civil service. One interviewee for the paper talked about the need to set “insane targets”, a common occurrence among innovative tech entrepreneurs – and that’s exactly the sort of person that will be needed if such ambitious goals are to be met. As another interviewee put it: a “nondescript director general” with no relevant experience cannot be the driving force.

As in the private sector, these mission CEOs should be paid their worth and rewarded generously when mission milestones are hit. We shouldn’t lose out on the leadership of a Steve Jobs or Oppenheimer based on a rounding error in government’s overall budget.

We should also ensure that mission CEOs have the autonomy necessary to work to the best of their ability, based on the personal sponsorship of the PM – just as Dame Kate Bingham had in leading the Vaccine Taskforce. Conventional civil service hiring processes should be suspended in favour of the Mission CEO being able to appoint their own team, specially selected for their mission-relevant experience and skillsets.

Finally, to encourage different ways of working and maximise innovation, the mission CEOs should not be required to submit endless paperwork to the Treasury on why their mission deserves particular spending approvals. As Lord Willetts found in his recent review of business cases in the department for science, innovation and technology, these submissions are “ill-suited for the deliberate risk-taking necessarily involved in spending money on R&D”.

There would be precedent for doing this. ARIA, the UK’s Advanced Research and Innovation Agency, has a single business case for its entire spending programme – and the freedom to spend within that envelope. If we’re serious about delivering missions, we must recognise they too will require risk taking, and treat them the same way.

Mission Government sounds compelling, but moving from campaign soundbite to real-world impact will be the difference between a one-term PM and the legacy of a transformed Britain. Starmer must be clear-eyed about what it will take – and that will require skills, expertise and a risk-taking mindset that isn’t typically found in Whitehall.