Interview: Institute for Government’s Andrew Adonis

The principle advocate of a Lib-Lab coalition has ended up helping the present government do its job better.

By Alex Stevenson

Andrew Adonis, who masterminded Tony Blair's academies reforms before becoming transport secretary, wrote an article the day after the general election predicting a Conservative-Liberal Democrat tie-up would prove the "Fox-North coalition", resembling one of the shortest-lived in English history. "Let's be clear," he says frankly, "I was wrong about that." The coalition surprised him, as much as anyone else, with its cohesiveness.

Lord Adonis spent those frantic days after May 5th 2010 straining every sinew to try and persuade the Lib Dems to work with Labour, not the Tories, in government. His efforts proved unsuccessful, of course. Two months later he became director of the Institute for Government, a relatively new thinktank which focuses on the subtle arts of Whitehall.

Now, one year later, the former Cabinet minister spends his time trying to improve the way the coalition works. He believes in "one government at a time" and expects the coalition will go the distance. "It's quite an important precedent," he muses. "If it can happen once, it can happen again. And it could be that coalitions are much more frequent in the future." All the changes that involves offer further opportunities for the IfG to have an impact.

A large portrait dominates Adonis' office in the Institute for Government's grand offices overlooking St James' Park in central London. The former Cabinet minister chose to work under the benevolent gaze of William Gladstone because, Adonis says, he was "probably the most successful liberal practitioner of the art of government in the history of democratic governments everywhere, not just in Britain". Not a bad example to follow if you happen to be in the business of trying to foster better governing.

Gladstone is one of Adonis' three political heroes, the others being Tony Blair (of course) and Roy Jenkins. It was Jenkins who gave Adonis the single best piece of advice he'd ever heard to those in power: "you should always argue to solutions, not conclusions". This is exactly the sort of handy hint which new ministers could do with a bit more of. And this is where the Institute for Government comes in. It is developing an impressive record of influence in its niche area – the space between Whitehall and Westminster, primarily. In doing so it managed to win Prospect magazine's 'thinktank of the year' award in 2010, just two years after being set up.

All thinktanks try to mix their public policy advocacy with some behind-the-scenes nudging. The IfG goes further, making its closed-doors support for ministers a key part of its role. Before the general election, members of the Conservative opposition frontbench received training on how to run government departments. A sort of school for ministers, if you like.

"Almost all ministers who take office are entirely inexperienced," Adonis explains. "Even those who have been in power will have done so a long time ago, so they'll be out of date." The IfG, helped to maintain its political independence by being charity-funded, helped to fix this problem.

"For a long time now there's been a crying need for this sort of support," Adonis adds. He remembers well the first year of New Labour's time in power, when the party had been out of government for 18 long years. "If we didn't exist now, we'd have to be created," he insists.

There are two exceptions to the rule of inexperienced ministers at the very top of the coalition tree. Adonis claims David Cameron and George Osborne were both able to take over the reins very quickly because they had previous experience as special advisers to ministers.

'Spads' are the ministerial aides who act as their party political brain, bridging the gap between Whitehall and Westminster in a way politically-neutral civil servants just aren't allowed to. Adonis himself served as a spad in No 10, helping push through Blair's academies programme now being expanded by the coalition, before becoming a minister. While he was comfortable dealing with civil servants when he became a minister, the parliamentary and media side of the job which politicians are usually most at ease with was a bit trickier.

"The best experience is being an elected MP who's a former spad," he says. Like Cameron and Osborne, in fact. "Whereas Tony Blair," Adonis adds, "had never held any post of any kind when he first became prime minister. And I know he viewed that as a disadvantage."

The party with the least experience of government in recent decades is the Liberal Democrats. You'd have thought they needed more help than anyone else to get to grips with governing. Yet, thanks to the way the Whitehall system works after the formation of the coalition last year, they found themselves with far fewer special advisers than they needed.

This didn't go unnoticed by the IfG. It stepped in by publishing a report last autumn highlighting the dangers this posed. Ministers were persuaded that they needed to rectify the problem, which led to extra civil service support for Nick Clegg and extra spad support, too.

There is only so much all the extra help can give. For when events take hold, Adonis believes it's ultimately up to the politician to come up with the goods. "Nothing prepares you for handling great crises," he says, when I recall him stepping out of No 10 at the height of the ash cloud disruption which left thousands of British holidaymakers stranded overseas. "You're either up to it or you're not, in my experience."

The IfG's work extends beyond being a school for ministers. Adonis is very animated when he starts talking about the institutional weaknesses of the civil service. Not that there's anything wrong with individuals, he emphasises. "My criticisms are about the machine," he insists. "My own view is that the civil service is full of brilliant people who are terribly managed."

One of the biggest problems the IfG isn't keeping quiet about is the "laughably" named 'permanent civil service'. People change jobs because of a merry-go-round culture which makes no sense, Adonis argues. He says he had six directors of the academies programme in the eight years he was engaged with it. It's not a problem that's going away, either: since the general election ten of the 16 departments of state have had changes in their permanent secretary. "The machine really is very badly run."

Another area where Adonis won't hold back is legislation – and the excesses of it. Most of the education legislation passed by New Labour was a "complete waste of time", he says. During all of the academies reforms he only ever needed one minor change in the law; the problem is that, across Whitehall, "ministers are obsessed with legislation as the totem of their success in government". The impulse towards 'my bill' as a statement of ministerial effectiveness is going to be hard to overcome, but the IfG is making the case.

Adonis is especially animated when it comes to elected mayors, which are currently working their way through parliament in the localism bill. He's worried that the coalition's going about introducing them the wrong way, and has written a letter to Eric Pickles outlining – in some detail – exactly what needs fixing. There's every sign the government is listening. A spokesperson said: "We will consider carefully the content of the report, in particular recommendations around potential mayoral powers, as we continue to take forward and develop our plans for city mayors."

The world of the spad, working out of sight halfway between government departments and political parties, seems peculiarly similar to the world which the IfG focuses on. So it makes sense that its ministerial training – the quiet chat whenever this or that powerful figure needs help getting the cogs of government turning, for instance – compliments its public efforts to improve the system. "Our role is to be discreet… but to be forthright in our role as a thinktank in speaking truth to power," Adonis says.

Ministers, present and future, will trust its judgement as much as they rely on it. It's a neat way of achieving the main aim of all thinktanks – getting inside the minds of the powerful.