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The Art of Public Strategy

Geoff Mulgan is author of The Art of Public Strategy. He is director of the Young Foundation and was previously director of the government strategy unit and head of policy for Tony Blair. He also currently serves as an adviser to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and many other governments around the world. In the post below, written specially for OUPblog, Geoff Mulgan gives his seven key lessons for any President to be able to leave office as a success.


The new president faces a huge gulf between expectations and his ability to act – thanks to the scale of the current crisis and his constrained resources. His predecessors failed strategically by many counts – Clinton left office popular but failed to see through key reforms; Bush got bogged down in Iraq and in some eyes achieved precisely opposite goals to the ones he wanted.

Both were much more focused on tactics than strategy. So here are seven key lessons – for any President – on how to leave office as a success not a failure:

1 Focus – do a few things really well. Most leaders dissipate their energies. I argue that it’s best to prioritise fields where you have both power and knowledge. Many leaders try to act where they have neither – eg strategies for the middle east where the US lacked power over the key levers, or attempting to reinforce family values where governments lacked either the knowledge or the power to achieve very much. By contrast we know quite a lot about how to run a successful health system and the federal government has the power to get it right.

2 Build in a focus on the long-term, to counter the huge power of tactics and spin in modern governments. That requires senior people spending most of their time thinking 2, 5 or 10 years into the future. Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 exercise and his new strategy unit is a good example, as is Sarkozy’s current work on France 2025. Many recent US presidents’ teams show exactly what you shouldn’t do, ie putting tacticians like Karl Rove in charge of policy. This also needs to inform how recovery plans are shaped – the more they can simultaneously address the immediate problems of recession and longer-term challenges, like climate change and ageing, the better.

3 Ensure resilience – and build up your government’s capacity to cope with shocks, whether further sharp downturns in the economy or catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina (since a near certainty is that natural disasters will continue increasing in regularity in the years ahead).

4 Work hard to avoid the common optical illusions of government. They usually risk believing their own rhetoric, continuing with projects just because they’ve had a lot of investment, and failing to empathise, whether with their own citizens or other countries. Robert MacNamara suggested in his film ‘The Fog of War’ that this last failing was the most common, and damaging, one for governments.

5 In difficult times speed up innovation. Roosevelt is a good example who was willing to ‘try anything’ in response to unemployment. For the same reason it’s important to learn fast. Any new leader is bound to make mistakes but it’s best to make them quickly and early – and learn globally. Most of the things the US needs to do are being done somewhere already. China now automatically scans the world for best practice. The US needs to learn similar habits.

6 Don’t be captured by the mainstream. Innovation and adaptability also requires that a President draws on ideas from beyond the mainstream. Roosevelt’s genius was in part to draw on advisers who were not part of the Wall Street/Washington consensus. They helped him shape a radically different response to the Depression. Obama’s big risk at the moment is that his key staff are too much insiders, too embedded in the system that now looks broken.

7 Above all sustain hope and optimism even through difficult times, since hope is a vital energy that makes everything else easier. Just as optimism correlates with individual’s ability to recover from heart attacks, so does it influence societies ability to recover from downturns and crises.

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