Geoff Mulgan’s book on ‘The Art of Public Strategy’ is an riveting read, fizzing with insights and ideas.
Mulgan played a big role in the Blair government, as a policy adviser and Head of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. He also has a strong history as a think-tanker and author, so his writing is full of insider anecdote, big ideas and shows a remarkably broad sweep. Having said all that is has several faults.First, if you are looking for a “how to do it” recipe book this one is probably not what you’d want. Whilst there is masses of sage advice it has to be dug out – there are few helpful lists of ‘do’s and don’ts’.
Second, if you are looking for rigorous definitions and careful marshalling of evidence, forget it. The style is far too discursive for that. For example the chapter (2) on “What is Public Strategy” contains a rather slight definition in the opening paragraph: “public strategy is the systematic use of public resources and powers, by public agencies, to achieve public goals.” (p20). Take out the word ‘systematic’ and this becomes almost meaningless. By the end of the chapter you have abit more ideas what strategy is – and isn’t – from Mulgan’s perspective but you would be hard-pressed to write down a short summary, let alone a definition.
Third, it is all a bit Brit-centric. Although there are lots of international examples of strategies there’s relatively few of actual strategy making – perhaps understandable given Mulgan’s history but it makes some of the lesson drawing of limited applicability to the USA, for example.
Fourth – and this is just bad luck – the timing of the book is lousy. As Mulgan himself says “volatility makes strategy much harder” (p257). The initial impetus behind being more “strategic” in the Blair government had already begun to wane before the current crisis struck – now it is fast going completely out of fashion. True, the Obama presidency is seeking to strike out in more strategic change directions but it is very much the odd-one-out at the moment and not certain to succeed in this endeavour itself. Most western governments look more like rabbits caught in the proverbial car headlights – frozen and certainly not producing any radical new vision of the future, even the immediate future, other than surviving the crisis.
Having said all of that, Mulgan’s book is a “must read” for anyone interested in strategic choice and action in government. There are a lot of good ideas, sage advice and practical tips – even if it does need some perseverance to dig them out.