Opening Downing Street’s door: Nick Pearce on British statecraft

Few understand the complexities of the British political landscape better than Nick Pearce. His tour of the UK’s policymaking maze has seen him take in roles ranging from government adviser to leading an influential think tank to a senior role as the Head of the No10 Policy Unit under then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. These twists and turns have since continued, carrying him onward to his latest stop, this time in academia, at the University of Bath where he heads up the Institute for Policy Research.

It is from this position that he has observed the dramatic political changes that have swept the UK in recent weeks. Does he miss being in the thick of the action? “Nobody who works in Number 10 ever says anything other than that it was a total privilege to do it,” he says. “But at the moment I’m trying to think about public policy and academic theories of public policy, and how these are changing in response to developments in politics and government. We’re going through an incredibly turbulent time and I want to be able study and theorise it.”

Times are a changing

Pearce says that the current generation of policymakers and advisers in government are confronted by a very different landscape than the one he encountered as an advisor in the Home Office, Cabinet Office and former Department for Education and Employment. With what has worked in the past no longer as relevant, new approaches are required.

“The way we thought about public services in the 1990s and beyond was predicated on relatively stable political environments and strong leaders who could develop reform and achieve it,” he recalls. “There was a whole architecture of public service reform that was contingent on those notions of economic and political stability, and certain kinds of political leadership, as well as agendas like delivery and nudge. These underpinned the idea that the state would find the right answers, have the right policies and then implement them.”

But then the financial crisis hit, proving that former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s warning of “events, dear boy, events” remains just as relevant some 50 years on. Pearce does not question its transformational impact. “Everything changed in Number 10 when the financial crisis hit,” he says. “I was in the Home Office at the turn of the century and within a matter of months the 9/11 attacks took place and it cast an entirely different shadow over the politics of that period. My experience in Number 10 was very similar. It changed everything, including all of our assumptions and all we had had to do.

He goes on to say that the ripples from the crisis affected every nook and cranny of the policymaking environment. “It became a lot more complicated, more complex and more unstable,” he says. “The mainstream two party system has already started to decline, but the pluralisation of politics proceeded more rapidly after the financial crisis. The UK itself began to fragment too. “This means you can no longer predicate a lot of your thinking on strong leaders from one of the big parties in power. There are more complex negotiations between parties themselves and parties and voters, and a new set of policy challenges have come to the fore.”

To illustrate his point he cites the example of immigration – an issue that was top of mind for many British voters during the recent referendum on membership of the European Union. “It’s difficult to think of this as a traditional delivery challenge,” he says. “Clearly, you want to improve how immigration processes work, have well managed borders and have a policy framework that is implemented effectively. But immigration is different to getting your hospital appointment within a week or your children’s education improving. It is about culture and identity – how people think of themselves and the communities they live in. And there are many factors involved, both domestic and international. It can’t just be treated as a delivery challenges. It shows how issues today don’t always lend themselves to the type of statecraft we’ve had in the past – which means we need new ways of thinking about public policy.”

Downing Street delivery

Prior to taking up his role in Bath, Pearce had served as director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, where he led a team of nearly 50 staff producing research and policy agendas in the key areas of public services, economic reform, the welfare state, migration, energy and environment and politics and power. The role followed his three year stint as head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, which was responsible for the formulation of policy advice to the prime minister. “It was an experience that was full of challenges,” admits Pearce. “It was a demanding place to work and there were constant day-to-day issues to deal with as well as the bigger crisis of what was happening in the economy.”

However, he has no doubt of the value that the unit added to the Downing Street operation. “When David Cameron came in he basically got rid of a unit which is staffed by political appointees who come in and leave with the prime minister,” he explains. “It will be interesting to see if Theresa May creates a strong policy centre. The big danger for her is that Brexit will just consume everything and civil servants will just do nothing else. She has clearly got a social reform agenda and a macro-economic agenda and she will need a machinery of government to take that forward.”

He is hopeful that Britain’s new prime minister will make a success of her new role but has some words of warning as well. “She has developed a reputation at the Home Office for keeping things very tight and being very managerial,” he points out. “But when you’re in Number 10 the sheer volume of activity you have to deal with is on a different scale and you have to be in the public eye a lot. You can’t choose your rules of engagement the same way you can in the Home Office or Treasury – you have to be there all the time.”

So what would he recommend? “You have to have more people working with you – you can’t do it all from a small group” he replies. “She has great civil servants there. I’d recommend getting a really strong policy unit up and running that shadows different departments and can make sure that her agenda is pursued across government. They can also anticipate political issues that may emerge and stop problems developing.”

He goes on to say that creating some mechanisms for being able to think strategically about policy in the long and medium term would also be advisable. “You have to have the capacity in government to think beyond the horizon,” he explains. “The thing about Number 10 is that you do get caught up in the day-to-day a lot. So you have to have people thinking further afield. You also have to have strong relationships with key departments like the Treasury – if you don’t it’s a real problem.”

And leadership, too, is important. “Leadership is now about different skills – that ability to empower and work with mayors for example or with leaders at regional or county level,” he says. “She mentioned the union of United Kingdom in her first speech as prime minister. This is incredibly challenging as Brexit has given it an such an electric shock. I would strongly encourage her to continue the process of devolution, of reconfiguring a much looser United Kingdom where all countries – including England – gets more devolution and not assume that it can all be done from the centre.”

So, interesting times then? “Yes – very interesting,” he concludes, with a smile. “It will be fascinating to see how it all pans out.”



  • Rethinking Public Services. Sir Peter Housden considers the future of the UK’s public services.
  • Shaking up the UK’s status quo. Few know more about the reality of life behind the UK’s closed government doors than Francis Maude. Here, he tells us about the lessons gleaned from overseeing a radical programme of government reforms that continue to reverberate to this day
  • The God Revolution. Public impact is easier said than done, admits former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell. Here, he tells Adrian Brown about his experiences as the UK’s top public servant and why impact is rarely viewed as a key priority among policymakers.
  • Championing the disadvantaged. As the UK’s ‘pupil premium champion’, Sir John Dunfordwas tasked with helping schools better support underprivileged children – talk about a worthy public impact. He tells us about his experiences
  • Some relationship advice. A successful transformation project depends on many factors, saysLouis Watt. But prime among them is the relationship between the government ministry and its agencies on the frontline
  • Three golden rules on delivery. Ray Shostak has a crystal-clear understanding of how a government can increase its impact on delivery. Here, he sets out lessons gleaned from his stint leading the UK delivery unit, extensive experiences on the frontline, and working with governments across the globe