Coherence in The Route to Growth

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Coherence. The second key element of our industrial strategy - The Route to Growth.

What does it mean in practice?

Better coordination across the government, policies pulling together, yes. But it's easy to pay lip service to that - what government in the world would ever seek to be less coordinated?

To be clear we aren't getting enough growth and growth is not rebalancing sufficiently quickly to more investment and trade. This needs to be at the top of the priority list for all government departments - every other priority needs to be subject to better delivery on growth.

So there needs to be some implication of 'coherence' that means government would act differently.

For me it goes to the heart of government decision-making processes. Too many decisions are made in an ad hoc fashion - bilaterally between departments or sometimes simply unilaterally. Too many departments don't feel they own growth as a priority they need to help deliver. Even within some economic departments that may more easily see the importance of growth, officials - and ministers - don't always seem to put growth at the top of their priorities.

Changing these processes is important. We were heartened therefore to see a Cabinet committee focusing on growth established by the government last week.

At its best such a committee could be an important filter on policies coming through from across Whitehall - debating and improving on the best ideas to support growth. But just as importantly holding up to high scrutiny proposals that are detrimental to growth.

The committee could be a forum for ministers to properly thrash out differences between their perspectives and come to a common view. That would actually be a change from much of the shadow-boxing that happens primarily at official level, usually supplemented with an opaque political decision at the end.

Ministers could propose a paper to be put on the agenda. The chair decides if the paper is accepted. HM Treasury comments on the fiscal and economic merits of the proposals within the paper. Debate is had. Minutes are issued. A decision is made, or, as appropriate referred to the full Cabinet for sign off. This is a regular process - probably a weekly one to be most effective.

This is how Cabinet committees work in other countries.

However, the government's announced growth committee seems to be more focused on implementation. Now of course implementation is very important perhaps especially so when there is little spare cash to fund additional policies (though of course there is still a baseline of government expenditure that ministers have choices over).

But a committee focused on implementation may struggle to have much impact on other policy areas proceeding apace that are potentially detrimental to growth. After all, talk to officials about 'Plan for Growth' implementation and you'll get a 200+ item RAG report with individual progress notes. Quite enough to sift through for a committee that I understand will meet once a month.

Also, if I was looking for the value-add from Ministerial decision making, while it has a role certainly in improving implementation, surely the greater role is in policy formation - particularly if ministers consider - as we do - that more needs to be done to support growth than what we currently have on the table. Implementation to my mind is actually better suited to individual ministers driving progress at the departmental level - subject to regular Cabinet reports-back to demonstrate progress against agreed benchmarks.

Perhaps the existing 'Economic Affairs' Cabinet Committee fulfils the main economic/growth policy role? Perhaps this formally sets the direction, meets regularly, issues minutes, acts as a filter - knocks back the duds. Somehow I doubt it though. And it's interesting that there is a perceived need for a new committee focused on growth - is that not saying something about the Economic Affairs Committee?

Does a better Cabinet committee process guarantee better decision-making - no, and certainly not on its own.

But we believe it is an important part of improving government policy. And when government decides to go ahead on energy policy with questionable implications for growth or restrict access to skilled workers via the immigration system - hopefully those tradeoffs are made clearer to the government and the ministers ultimately accountable for delivering the government's economic strategy.

This week EEF published an industrial strategy for a stronger, better balanced economy - The Route to Growth.


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