Lessons Learned from a Career in Government
John Bruton, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland from 1994 to 1997, helped transform Ireland's economy, which had previously lagged behind most of Europe, into a country with fast growth that was dubbed a "Celtic Tiger." Bruton was also deeply involved in the Northern Ireland peace process leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which resolved a religious and political conflict dating back to the seventeenth century. A passionate supporter of European integration, Bruton served as EU ambassador to the United States from 2004 to 2009.
A long career in government, starting with my election to the Dáil at the age of 22 and leading to my time as Taoiseach, has yielded many insights, large and small. Reflecting back in the context of today's political situation in Europe and the world, four lessons stand out in particular.

The first is that governing a democratic country requires not only a willingness to make difficult decisions, but to make these decisions in a rush, and always without the benefit of complete information. A government that cannot operate in conditions of uncertainty, which is always waiting for more information before taking a decision — or worse yet, simply hoping an issue will go away — may eventually find that it is not governing at all. The uncertainty is part of the job and there is no way around it.

The second lesson is to know and understand the work of the people largely responsible for providing as much information as possible to inform decision-making: the civil service. The expertise and commitment of the permanent civil service is an extraordinary asset for elected politicians, and one of the greatest mistakes one can make is to shut civil servants out of the decision-making process.

That having been said, across a government the civil service tends to operate in silos, with the staff or each ministry or department focused on their own set of issues without necessarily having a view of the bigger picture. A good example of this comes from the Covid-19 pandemic, where across Europe civil servants responsible for tourism and those dealing with public health had different perspectives and often different recommendations. It is the job of the political leadership to value and benefit from all perspectives but then ultimately define a single policy, and common goals, which apply across the government.

A third lesson is one that was less of an issue when I was in government, but which looms very large in today's media and social media landscape: the need for confidentiality and candid discussion within government. To be sure, government must be transparent, but if public servants are not certain that internal discussions during the policy-making process are confidential, this process will suffer. Many things are said privately within government which politicians would not want to see made public — but which are extremely valuable contributions to the policy process all the same.

Democratic governments cannot operate in secret, but a maximalist view of transparency does not foster good governance either. A balance must be struck.
The final lesson is not an original one, as many other politicians have made this point, but it is probably the most important one of all: Governments and leaders need focus. Realistically in a democratic system, a government can only achieve three or four objectives during a standard term in office. It is very important to choose core objectives very carefully upon entering government and maintain a clear focus on them by ensuring that the leadership team adopts and transmits these goals across government. Of course, there are dozens of brilliant policy ideas floating around at any one time, and one is tempted to pursue them all, but one must have discipline and maintain focus. A government that tries to achieve a hundred things is often a government that will achieve nothing.

The European Union is inevitably quite a different creature than a national government. It began as a remarkable political experiment in the postwar period, and is now without question the successful example of governance on the supranational level.

It would be ideal if EU citizens felt not only patriotism toward their own nation-states but also to Europe, as represented by the EU. Without a sense of European patriotism, the potential for conflict within the EU will always be greater.
Of course, it was a lack of allegiance or emotional affinity for the European Union which played a key role in Britain's exit from the EU, a truly regretful development. Of course, I have a personal stake in this, given my role in pushing for peace in Northern Ireland. In the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, we took very hard decisions indeed, working with parties on both sides that had been considered terrorists to put into place a framework where these parties saw that they could achieve their legitimate goals by means other than violence.

Now the British withdrawal from the EU has reopened some of the most difficult issues we dealt with in the 1990s. The question of whether there would be a border in the Irish Sea or at the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was the topic of extensive negotiations at that time. A reasonable and balanced solution was found at that time. Now because of Brexit, in order to maintain an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, there is a customs border in the Irish Sea, which has created dismay among many in Northern Ireland.

It is my opinion that British voters made a mistake in supporting exit from the EU, but it was their decision to make. I do not think it is correct to blame politicians for this result. In a democracy, citizens have a responsibility to make informed choices as best they can. This is what happened in the United Kingdom, and we will all live with the consequences, positive or negative.

The secret of the EU's success has been the care and attention paid toward its governance structures, which may appear unwieldy, but which have evolved to work well together to achieve common European objectives.
The Council of Ministers and European Council represent the member states; the European Commission acts as an executive body to develop and enforce laws that are in the broad European interest; the European Parliament represents citizens; and the European Court of Justice acts as the ultimate arbiter of the law.

Although the European Parliament is directly elected and is the most democratic of the EU institutions, many have commented, and I would agree, that the democratic character of the EU today remains a bit abstract. Well-functioning democratic politics must be founded on an emotional affinity of citizens toward their government, an allegiance that underpins the willingness of the people to make sacrifices for others from time to time. Today this allegiance within Europe remains very much at the level of the nation-state.

The next step for the European Union is be movement toward developing the concept of a European patriotism, and this is an area where one can see certain progress already, particularly among young people.
The European Union is inevitably quite a different creature than a national government. It began as a remarkable political experiment in the postwar period, and is now without question the successful example of governance on the supranational level.

Re-State's Future of Governance Interview and Blog series features world leaders and thinkers from various fields discussing their experiences in governance and the innovations that are making our political institutions and systems more accountable and participatory. To watch John Bruton's #futureofgovernance Interview, visit our YouTube channel here: