Publication Machinery of government 1 August, 2023

Breaking down the barriers: why Whitehall is so hard to reform

Read the full report  

There is remarkable consensus – including among many working within the civil service – on the key flaws in the Whitehall machine. Yet, while successive administrations have attempted to modernise the civil service and improve the structures of Whitehall, the same problems continue to recur.  

At a time when the nation is facing era-defining and systemic changes, the nucleus of government – Whitehall – must be operationally brilliant. Addressing shortcomings is not only key to better government, but to Britain’s future prosperity. Mapping the barriers to reforming Whitehall is the crucial first step to developing a plan which can overcome those deep-rooted flaws. 

'Breaking down the barriers' is based on interviews with 27 senior leaders – former ministers, cabinet secretaries, permanent secretaries, other senior civil servants, and government advisers – with direct experience of reform programmes. Their candid reflections, across different decades, departments and governments, form the basis for this paper. 

Together, the insights from this paper offer a striking insider view of why Whitehall is so difficult to change, and hint at what future reform programmes must do differently to actually succeed.  

The key barriers identified in the paper are:

  • A lack of clarity about who is responsible for instigating change  
  • Ministerial uninterest  
  • A poorly defined and weak executive centre  
  • A bias for policy and ministerial handling skills over corporate and organisational capabilities in promotion 
  • Departmental fiefdoms  
  • A leadership cadre with limited external experience and a status quo bias  
  • Insufficient investment in change management and poor communication of the tangible value for reform  
  • Limited attempts to build enthusiasts for reform throughout the civil service  
  • Limited exposure at all levels to alternative organisational models and ways for working  
  • The absence of a self-reforming, or stewardship, mentality