The Week

The Week 15 March 2024

Joe Hill
Policy Director

It's been a big week for Whitehall watchers.

The Institute for Government released Power with Purpose, the final report of their Commission on the Centre of Government. It contains seven key proposals for how to improve the functioning of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, so that a government is better placed to deliver their ambitious priorities. The Times wrote it up as being considered by key figures in Labour as a blueprint for their plans to overhaul Whitehall’s governance — and we're pleased to hear it. Readers of our report on Breaking down the barriers from last year will be familiar with the case for reforming Whitehall, and why it’s so challenging.

Some of the IfG’s recommendations, such as restructuring No.10 and the Cabinet Office into a Department of the PM and Cabinet, and a Department for the Civil Service, echo (though are not identical to) recommendations in Lord Maude’s recent review. An interviewee for our Barriers report told us “the Cabinet Office is a uniquely dysfunctional organisation”, and it’s clear that change is needed.

Others, such as the formation of a smaller Executive Cabinet to focus on a government’s top priorities, came as a “shock” to John Major and Gordon Brown, who both spoke at the report's launch. Major’s argument in favour of Cabinet government being about the diffusion of power, not its centralisation in the hands of a few, is valid. But currently, Cabinet meetings are attended by 32 Ministers — hardly, as the IfG point out, the size of a genuinely deliberative body which can take executive decisions. Some recommendations cover well-trodden but important ground, such as the separation of the Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the Civil Service into two separate jobs, which harks back to the division of responsibilities between Jeremy Heywood and Bob Kerslake in the Coalition Government. In order for the Head of the Civil Service to still have a central role and not be sidelined, then the more ‘back-office’ elements of their job would need to be high on a Prime Minister’s agenda — particularly civil service reform.

Notably, the IfG haven’t recommended an institutional split of the Treasury, instead suggesting that there should be a shared strategy, budget and performance management process owned collectively at the centre of government. But without structural reforms to departments, or the responsibilities they hold in a spending review, it’s hard to know whether that will make a dent — HMT has circa 200 people who work on public spending, which is quite a capability gap for a new Department of the PM and Cabinet to make up if they want a level playing field.

Overall, it’s an ambitious plan for rewiring the centre of government, and the 150 pages that sit behind it make a powerful case for change. Both parties need to consider how they’d want Whitehall to work differently to deliver their agenda after an election, and ideas like these are the ones they should be thinking about.

But as the saying goes, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, and this week has been filled with signs that Whitehall’s culture isn’t up to the challenge of implementing big strategies. The National Audit Office’s report on Civil Service leadership capability, out this week, highlights positive improvements in leadership. There’s clearly been a measurable increase in positive responses about leadership to the Civil Service People Survey, from 31% in 2012 up to 53% in 2020.

But, it also highlights the absence of a better system for linking performance to consolidated pay increases for Senior Civil Servants — something which would surely help attract outside talent into the SCS, which is still made up of 80% internal recruits. We were delighted to see the NAO drawing on and citing our Barriers paper on the culture and absence of leadership from the centre of government.

And if most leaders of the future are going to come from within the ranks of the civil service, they’ll have a smaller talent pool to choose from. This week we learned that applications to the Fast Stream, the civil service’s talent pipeline for future leaders to join the civil service, have been steadily decreasing over the last few years — from 64,000 in 2020 to only 27,000 in 2023. Given the pay for fast streamers has only increased by £1,000 since 2015 (from £27,000 to £28,000), it’s easy to imagine that talented graduates are eschewing public service in favour of better paid private sector jobs.

These themes of improving leadership and talent in the civil service is key to our 'Reimagining Whitehall' programme at Reform, and we will be building on much of this research in the coming months.

We couldn't miss the opportunity to also highlight the fact that former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell is doing a 1,000 push-up challenge to raise funds for the charity ProBono Economics. Good to see him taking the notion of a stronger, more capable centre to heart — watch him do his first 10 here!

Read of the week

Given the theme of leadership in government, it’s worth reading this BBC piece (and listening to the Today Podcast) with the recent ex-borders inspector David Neal. He’s vocal on the lack of responsibility taken by senior Home Office officials, and their “blaming up” to Ministers. He points to failures to inspect facilities for children housed after crossing in small boats, with conditions “worse than facilities for detained Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan”, and the failure to supply Border Force officers at Heathrow with radios to raise alarms with their colleagues. When he was sacked, 15 of his reports had not been published by the Home Office, the oldest dating back almost 18 months — hardly the standard you would expect for independent scrutiny at a time when border security is always in the news (though thirteen have now been published).