The Week

The Week 21 July 2023

James Sweetland
Senior Researcher

Recess is upon us again! Before things quieten down in August, we’ve been keeping an eye on some interesting developments in the world of Whitehall.

On Wednesday, Minister for the Cabinet Office Jeremy Quin delivered a major speech on skills, efficiency and tech in the civil service. The Government’s focus on Whitehall reform has waxed and waned a little in recent times, so it was good to see it back up the agenda.

Leaving aside the obvious efficiency win — £4.4 billion in savings from central functions shouldn’t be sniffed at — the promise of a new digital and data secondment programme to bring top private sector talent into Whitehall is exciting. We also welcome the idea of unleashing departments to try out simplified and streamlined external recruitment approaches (though the detail of this isn’t yet clear). As our own soon-to-be-published research notes, even those who’ve worked in the most senior ranks of Whitehall agree that it’s pretty homogeneous at the top, with a real lack of external experience too. Efforts to bring in new people with new perspectives is a good idea.

Let’s be realistic about this, though. Secondments have been tried before, and historically it’s proven difficult for people who think differently to have an impact in Whitehall. To quote the Baxendale report: “there is a sense that, rather than embrace different skills and styles, the Civil Service works to bring people into line”. A culture that prioritises the assimilation of newcomers isn’t likely to make the most of external hires, no matter how talented they are. So shifting recruitment and secondment practices can only be part of the solution.

Another announcement from Jeremy Quin — a new Evaluation Registry containing over 2000 social policy evaluations — is potentially significant. Right now, policy professionals and public sector workers have to go out of their way to dig out high-quality evaluations to inform their work, a significant waste of time and a major cause of Whitehall’s institutional amnesia. This new, accessible evidence hub could help. Though it will need to be regularly updated if it is to stay relevant.

The elephant in the room while Quin was speaking was, of course, Lord Maude’s much-delayed review into civil service governance and accountability — set to explore some of the bigger questions about how Whitehall works. With publication expected in September, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Government will become even more radical on this agenda. Reform will be quizzing him on his findings at an in-conversation event in October. Watch this space!

Onto our recommended read of the week…

Nearly one year on from Sir Mark Rowley’s appointment as Commissioner, this week also saw the publication of ‘A New Met for London’ — the force’s long-awaited turnaround plan. It follows a wave of high-profile and highly damaging crises over the past few years. Just this week, we had the latest public apology: this time for failings in the Daniel Morgan investigation.

Much of what’s in the plan is stuff we’ve heard before. But two key elements caught our attention. First, the “new operating model” to tackle perpetrators of Violence Against Women and Girls — covered in more detail here — which will identify the 100 most dangerous offenders, based on the total harm caused (rather than the number of cases alone). It should make targeting of those with a pattern of abuse much easier — a common failing in our justice system, which tends to focus on individual cases in isolation. Second, there’s the renewed focus on community policing, with “a bespoke set of crime priorities for each ward” and 1,100 new PCSOs targeted at local neighbourhood. With recent cuts having tended to fall on this part of policing (with specialist units often protected), it’s a welcome effort to rebalance resources towards the community level.