The Week

The Week, 29 July 2022

Having been trailed for weeks, the Government has officially launched its review into governance and accountability in Whitehall — the biggest move it has made since a Declaration on Government Reform that was published more than a year ago. And, as predicted, Lord Maude is in the driving seat, bringing the key architect of civil service reform plans during the coalition years back for one last(?) mission.

Maude is an intelligent appointment, for an unenviable job. He brings with him considerable experience of grappling with the machinery of government, and he has recently spoken quite openly about the barriers that his efforts faced, reporting both disinterest and “active hostility” from the Treasury, passive and active obstruction from civil servants themselves, and an overall failure to promote the development of better policy continuity and expertise by reducing staff churn.

This has not prevented Lorde Maude from plunging back into the fray now, however, and the newly published terms of reference for his review suggest that there is considerable scope for radical proposals. His remit extends far enough that he could recommend changes to ministerial involvement in the way that civil servants are appointed and dismissed; the function of Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) and the information that they have access to — and more.

Strikingly, Maude is set to report by the end of September — surely not adequate time for a broad consultation process, particularly since the lion’s share of the work will have to happen during sleepy August. If policy wonks and experts aren’t completely distracted by their buckets, spades, and airport novels, they may well still have their heads turned by the carnival surrounding the selection of the next prime minister.

It may be that this is the consideration that has resulted in this speedy review. Both remaining Prime Ministerial candidates will, like most new PMs, be interested in machinery of government reform — and it seems that this report will arrive in their inboxes just as they are unpacking their bags and deciding which walls to put their pictures of Margaret Thatcher on.

Here’s some suggested summer time reading just as August arrives…

Neil O’Brien MP, a serious policy thinker and until recently a Minister in Michael Gove’s Levelling Up Department, will surely play an important role in the next government. This week, he has written an honest and important-to-read discussion of the huge challenges posed by inflation and the teetering financial state of many public services. Notably, he points out that financial pressures deepen the policy challenges that the coming administration will face, and make some of those challenges more acute. Making progress will, inevitably, cost money.

Secondly, this report for Radix by Professor Stephen Smith tackles the thorny issue of how to pay for the NHS in the long term. There is much in this report to agree with: the need for an honest conversation about how to fairly fund health and social care in an ageing nation with high expectations on what can be delivered and the need to commission services to deliver better health outcomes not just more activity. However, the main proposals of the report — a hypothecated tax for the NHS and hospital charges — feel inadequate, considering the challenges we face. As our Senior Researcher Seb Rees notes in this twitter thread, it’s time for a much more ambitious and original discussion on the future of health, since few if any of the underlying drivers of demand and poor outcomes will necessarily be fixed by a few copayments or a pivot to a Europe-style social insurance approach.

Finally, Stewart Brand’s thoughtful essay The Maintenance Race has been making waves on social media, and it’s easy to see why. Describing the extraordinary efforts of the participants in a 1968 round-the-world sailing race, anyone interested in policy is likely to find a lesson in the different ‘maintenance styles’ we can find here. Some sailors were purely reactive to challenges as they arose; others tried to simplify their systems to make maintenance easier, or contingency-planned for the worst. You can probably guess which approaches were more successful - policy professionals take note!