Comment Blog 6 June, 2023

The ingredients of a reimagined Whitehall: new mindsets, a rewired centre and a commitment to decentralise power

James Sweetland
Senior Researcher

In launching our Reimagining Whitehall programme last year, we identified three biases – power-hoarding, single mindset and bureaucratic – that hinder performance.

Today, we are sharing the framework for the policy papers that will explain how to overcome these, by repurposing the machinery of government for an era of uncertainty and change. 

At the start of 2023, Rishi Sunak announced five key pledges for his Government. And, though some welcomed their simplicity and others questioned their ambition, the underlying commitment was difficult to quibble with. “No tricks. No ambiguity. We’re either delivering for you or we’re not.” 

Our Reimagining Whitehall programme is focused on exploring exactly how this can be done. In the age of polycrisis, with government facing new threats and fundamental questions about the sustainability of public services, to really deliver – with “no tricks” and “no ambiguity” – is more challenging than ever.  

Achieving this mission requires specific reform proposals in each policy area, but it also means something more fundamental. As we wrote in our launch essay: “to tackle current crises and prepare for future challenges, a more diverse, dynamic, and decentralised government machine will be needed.” Fixing Whitehall is the essential mechanism for building government that delivers. And, just as this is a priority for the current government, so it shall be for the next – regardless of which party leads it.  

Reimagining Whitehall will, therefore, focus on three research themes: 

New mindsets 

One thing that the world’s most successful organisations have in common is their ability to bring together diverse capabilities, experience and expertise to solve complex problems, innovate, and when needed, challenge received wisdom and ways of working. Whitehall, by contrast, looks nothing like this. As we explained in our launch essay, the civil service is held back by a tendency towards a single institutionalised mindset — insular, defensive, cognitively homogenous, prone to groupthink, and often dismissive of operational or subject matter expertise. 

These blind spots prevent Whitehall from understanding citizens’ needs. They hamper efforts to design effective and efficient policies and build resilience to crises or unexpected events. And government has, for too long, been caught in a cycle of poor performance in the face of complex problems. Unless Whitehall can think differently, it is unlikely to deliver differently. 

In New mindsets, we will set out how the civil service must change its thinking, by exploring the structures, incentives, and capabilities needed to create cultural change throughout Whitehall.  

Rewiring the centre 

One of the great purported strengths of Whitehall is its permanence. Though this value is less embedded than often claimed, when it comes to the centre – the triumvirate of No.10, Treasury and Cabinet Office – it has some merit. Even as other government departments have been reorganised, abolished or replaced, the centre has generally held. But permanence is not the same as high performance.   

While reforms to the centre have been attempted – the creation of the functional model under Francis Maude, for example – the same old problems persist. The centre has too few levers to overcome departmental fiefdoms, meaning it cannot drive delivery, system-wide reform, or effective cross-government working. The Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretary are torn between providing political support to the PM and leading corporate transformation of Whitehall – with the former almost always winning out. And the Treasury, at times in competition with No.10 and the Cabinet Office, has outsize influence, contributing to the short-termism which plagues government and often acting as a blocker to much-needed reform. 

In Rewiring the centre, we will present a new model for the executive core, exploring the interlocking roles of Cabinet Office, Treasury and No. 10 and setting out how to reset this relationship so Whitehall really can deliver.  

Decentralising power 

Effective delivery also means that the centre should sometimes do less, not more. By trying to hold on to everything, Whitehall’s grip too often slips. The extraordinary overcentralisation in our system is a symptom of a decades-long tendency toward power-hoarding at the heart of government. The results of this are clear. When policies are designed or plans are made, local government, citizens and communities are far too often an afterthought.  

The logic of devolution is self-evident: some things are simply easier to get right at smaller scales. When devising skill strategies for local economies, collaborating across public services to solve complex problems, or delivering public health interventions targeted at the most vulnerable communities, local leaders, working with local citizens, businesses and civic institutions, are far better placed to act. But redistributing power, responsibility and resources can also enable the centre too.  

By placing power at the right level, the core of Whitehall can be freed up to focus on work that is often neglected, such as building national resilience, tackling society-wide and long-term challenges, delivering major infrastructure programmes, and preparing the country for technologies such as AI.  

In Decentralising power, we will articulate the case for ending the embedded culture of ‘centralism by default’ and explain how really delivering will require a government that has learnt when to let go.