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Manic actiovity makes for bad government

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Manic actiovity makes for bad government

Post  Panda on Tue 19 Feb - 11:54

Manic activity makes for bad government

David Cameron and the Conservatives should embrace 'masterly inactivity’ –
it often yields better results

'Just do something' is the
reaction to most crises: a new law, an inquiry, a task force, a relaunch, a
foreign visit, a White Paper endorsed by a celebrity. Instead the Conservatives
should do less, but do it better Photo: Geoff

By George Bridges

8:41PM GMT 18 Feb 2013


Ronald Reagan once said that the most terrifying words in the English
language are: “I am from the government and I am here to help.” I have a rival
sentence: “The Government must do something.” When a plan backfires and the
headlines scream, hyperactive press officers and nervous MPs rush in, bleating
about the need for action. A new law, an inquiry, a task force, a relaunch, a
foreign visit, a White Paper endorsed by a celebrity. Maybe all of the above,
all at once – “just do something” is the motto. Every government is the same
and, thanks to the media’s incessant and growing appetite for news, it is
getting worse. Masterly inactivity – the art of doing nothing, in a purposeful
way – demands a comeback.

Doing nothing is often mistaken for dithering, laziness, lack of courage or
absence of vision. Nonsense. With a clear strategy to achieve brutally simple
goals, good leaders put most crises in their proper place – little local
difficulties, soon to become the wrapping for tomorrow’s fish and chips. Far
from lacking courage, their strong desire not to be swayed from their path
enables them to see off those who demand immediate “action”. They stick to their
guns. These leaders do not suffer from the magpie tendency – they’re not easily
distracted by the shiny and new – nor do they bend in the wind to satisfy a
passing public fad. They know that action without full possession of the facts
is foolish, if not downright dangerous. Instead, they stay focused on a few big
things, patiently following up on plans they have launched months before,
tenaciously solving problems as they crop up. Beneath their seemingly relaxed
exterior is a stubbornness to keep calm and carry on.

More than that, this type of leader is also likely to be profoundly
conservative – note the small “c”. To shy away from reaching for the lever
marked legislation, to resist crowning yet another government tsar to sort out a
problem: these are the instincts of people who know the world will never be
perfect – but injecting more government into people’s lives is likely to make
matters worse. Trusting the people, not the state, does not mean abandoning
people to lives of misery and insecurity, nor refusing to intervene at all. It
simply reflects a sense that government works best when it is focused on a few
big things, not peppering the world with more initiatives and schemes.

Above all else, in order to face down the cacophony of calls to do something,
a leader must have a sense of mission, which pulsates through the entire
government and is impossible to ignore. Such a mission sends a clear signal:
“These are our priorities: everything else is secondary.” Focus, resources,
energy are poured into what matters, and nothing is allowed to get in the way of

These words are oh so easy to write, but sticking to them is another thing.
Having been fortunate enough to work for three Conservative leaders, as well as
a clutch of chief executives and chairmen, I know how difficult it is to say
“don’t issue that press release – we’re saying nothing” when the media gale is
Force 10 and strengthening, and the polls are minus 10 and dropping.

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Added to that, you have to fend off those who complain that there is nothing
on “the grid”, a timetable showing what was planned. To those who cannot
distinguish between disciplined communications and doing something for the sake
of it, the grid can easily be filled up just to prove “we’re doing something”.
To meet the “need to get a headline”, stressed advisers ring ministers: “The PM
is giving a speech tomorrow. Have you a policy we can announce?” These are the
times which test a leader’s mettle to stand up to the Do Something gang, whose
members are best classified according to Winnie-the-Pooh.

There are the Tiggers: those who bounce around, mistaking frenetic activity
for progress – and forgetting that activity can cause chaos and confusion. You
can spot them by their devotion to colourful Powerpoint presentations full of
timetables, their talk of “deliverables”, and a sense that action cannot come
soon enough.

There is usually an Eeyore or two. Depressed about the state of affairs, they
mope about, spreading gloom, doom and defeat – “What are you going to do when
this is all over?” being their opening question. Piglets – very timid, they are
what in the trenches was called “windy”, and fuel Tigger’s excitability. Roos:
young and impressionable, they say “yes” to what seems like a good idea.
Rabbits: fastidious about order and neatness, they cannot abide imperfection or
glitches. The best being never good enough, their favourite means of cajoling
people is to say “doing nothing is not an option”. And finally Owls: wise, yes,
but who see the world as a complicated place, requiring complicated answers
which only owls can understand.

Defeating the Do Something party is now critical for the Conservative Party
and its leadership. Defeatism is weakening the backbone of many backbenchers,
who believe that because the boundary review has been scotched, the
Conservatives cannot win the next general election outright. In the wake of
cowardice comes panic – a hotchpotch of policies, a blurb of new initiatives
designed to win pockets of voters. Those who want to win the next election
should block their ears. By doing less, but doing it better, and relentlessly
following the agenda that David Cameron has set – reduce the deficit, reform
welfare, raise standards in school – the Conservatives can win. Labour is there
for the beating. But simply “doing something” won’t do anything at all.

George Bridges is a former Chairman of the Conservative Research
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