Starmer can’t achieve his missions alone – government needs partners

Keir Starmer Leader of the Labour Party makes his speech at Progressive Britain one day conference in London today

The five missions outlined by Keir Starmer last month signal a fundamental shift in how a Labour government would enact change. 

Made famous by UCL professor Mariana Mazzucato, ‘mission theory’ has already been used to influence EU innovation policy and redesign UK industrial policy, so Keir has good reason to be optimistic about his ability to deliver real impact in this way.

But when speaking about a ‘break from business-as-usual government’, Keir will be more than aware of those who have gone before him with a similar vision. When Tony Blair and Michael Gove each took on ‘the blob’ in their own way, they found that real change is notoriously hard to achieve in the risk averse public sector.

We have all heard grand visions before, but the challenge comes in the delivery, so it was encouraging to see Keir drawing on the charity sector to realise the “agile, empowering, catalytic” change he wants to see.

While the public sector is tightly constrained by the centre, charities are often free to pursue their ‘missions’, filling the gaps left by the government. 

But achieving lasting change is not easy. In more than 20 years working directly with our charities for the long haul to increase their impact, Impetus has learned our lessons the hard way. 

So what does this mean for Keir Starmer if, once in government, he really wants to achieve the kind of long term impact that makes a tangible difference to people’s lives, and transform the way that government delivers change?  

Firstly, an understanding that accountability is scary. The charities in our portfolio all have one thing in common; they’ve taken the brave step of holding themselves to account for the missions they want to achieve. This means seeking the unvarnished facts, searching your soul when you get it wrong, but holding the blueprint for impact in your hands when you get it right. 

Take Football Beyond Borders who work with disadvantaged children to help them finish school and transition into adulthood through programmes of intensive support centred around football. With Impetus’ support and guidance, they took the brave decision to hold themselves to account on academics – because they know how crucial these qualifications are for the outcomes they exist to shift. And they discovered that their programme does indeed improve students’ chances of securing the qualifications needed to enter the workplace. 78% of disadvantaged students achieved a pass in English & maths, compared with 56% of students nationally.

Second, Starmer and his team will need be willing to work with proof that is patchy. Civil society is coming to a better understanding of what works for different groups, but we’re not there yet. We advise charities they need to make the best hypothesis they can based on their experience, their gut and the available evidence – and then commit to checking that they’re right. 

Our new partnership with Sister System, who work with care affected young women in Haringey and Enfield, is a good example. The programme they offer, centred around mentoring, and delivering a range of accredited qualifications, is designed to bridge the gap from care to the mainstream. Impetus and Sister System are working to build a blueprint for this work, but the intersectional inequalities that Sister System is addressing (race, gender, geography and status) are not well-evidenced. We are backing this team of experts in their field as best placed to build a credible and effective programme, working to plug the evidence gap and prove their impact. 

Thirdly, we know that this work takes humility to achieve focus. To do one thing to a benchmark-beating standard takes single-mindedness and integrity. We’re proud of the charities we’ve supported to hold steady on their course and have only helped them to scale and expand their services or reach when the evidence compels it. 

The Tutor Trust is a great example of this. Working to transform the life chances of children in the North of England through high-quality tutoring, evidence of their impact prior to scaling has been a hallmark of their methodology. In 2016, they took part in a Randomised Control Trial (the gold standard of evidence of impact) funded by the EEF. The evaluation showed that primary school children who received 12 hours of their tutoring made three months’ additional progress in maths. This has provided schools with confidence and helped them grow their reach by 40% year on year to over 6,700 young people in 2022.

Finally, and Starmer has already referenced the importance of having a ‘North Star’ to focus on, there are a myriad of distractions that will get in the way. For our charities this means things like staff turnover, requests from funders, safeguarding emergencies, Ofsted visits, policy consultations… the list goes on. This isn’t likely to be any different in government. Starmer’s ‘demands of the day to day’ will inevitably get in the way. 

This is why leaders need partnerships to keep them on mission – a role that civil society stands ready to fill for government. This relationship would bring with it the invaluable on-the-ground insight the third sector holds to guide central policy decisions, grounded in evidence, giving ministers and civil servants the ability to implement proven solutions to solve some of the most pressing policy challenges. In turn, centrally held data could be harnessed by these charities to target their work at the people who need it the most. 

Mission-led policy making through harnessing the strengths of a partnership between public and the third sectors has huge potential to deliver real change to people’s lives. It could be the solution to long term policy failure that has been staring us in the face.

Keir’s five missions are a step in the right direction but for them to affect lasting change, he can’t go it alone.

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