The Week

The Week 1 December 2023

Rachael Powell
Research Assistant

Toxic, flawed, and a “Mary Poppins bag” – not exactly the words you would want (or expect) the centre of government to be described as. Here at Reform, we have been avidly tracking the Covid Inquiry, especially for the insight into the inner workings of Whitehall.

Tuesday saw Michael Gove, who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for Cabinet Office at the time of the pandemic, give his evidence. He described the structure of the Cabinet Office as “flawed”, saying the way it was “configured was not…appropriate for the type of pandemic that we faced” nor “the type of crisis that requires an effective whole-of-government response”.

Its inappropriate structure, Gove elaborated, is because the Secretary of State – who, in other departments, is responsible for everything that happens within their department – carries out a rather different role in the Cabinet Office. Instead, he claimed, many things fall not under the remit of the lead Cabinet Office minister, but instead to the Cabinet Secretary or Prime Minister. This, in part, explains the Cabinet Office’s dysfunction.

Accountability in the Cabinet Office, and the Civil Service more generally, is a sticking point that Reform has encountered before: for example, in our recent panel Lord Francis Maude claimed “no one is in charge of the civil service”, and indeed in Maude’s review into governance, where he recommended a new Head of the Civil Service to replace the Cabinet Secretary – you can read our analysis here.

Gove described the Cabinet Office as a “Mary Poppins bag”, as there is a tendency for prime ministers to “shove things” there that do not neatly fit into other departments. He said that this creates dysfunction as responsibilities are “added in a piecemeal and cumulative way, without strategic thinking”.

As we have found, this “Mary Poppins bag” Cabinet Office leads to confusion even among senior politicians, with one former minister claiming that “[a]s for the Cabinet Office, I’ve got no idea whatsoever what they do” in our recent report into barriers to Whitehall reform.

When dealing with a crisis that requires a cross-Whitehall response, Gove suggested that the model of government is “not adequate”. Matt Hancock, former health secretary, echoed this sentiment in his evidence yesterday, where he said he tried to “wake up Whitehall” but was faced with a “toxic” culture and the spread of “misinformation” about what his department was delivering.

Hancock also claimed that he was under the false impression that the Department for Health and Social Care had an adequate plan for the pandemic. It turned out that its plan, based on a 2011 flu plan, dealt with the consequences of a pandemic, and not the actual suppression of one – although there were areas where the plan was strong, such as establishing a diagnostic test. In our own report on how government can build resilience to civil emergencies, we highlighted multiple deficiencies in the way that government prepares and responds to emergencies.

Now for our read of the week…

This week, The Productivity Institute (TPI) published a report on the UK’s productivity, which in recent years has been flatlining. TPI identify three main challenges: underinvestment, slow take-up of productivity practices, and lack of joined-up policies that makes difficult the translation of national policy to the local level.

One recommendation set out in the report is to create a new body to monitor policies for productivity and growth. What that will include seems pretty wide: it will complement the Office of Budget Responsibility and focus on investment and technological change for trade, foreign direct investment, regulation and competition, planning, levelling up, and net zero.

However, the creation of an independent body for productivity, for all of its potential benefits in bringing authoritative analysis and evaluation, is unlikely to really shift the dial on productivity. This is especially the case in tackling causes of low productivity that are well-known – for example around the limitations our planning rules place on infrastructure development or the lack of investment in capital – but are fundamentally rooted in political choices and trade-offs.