Analysis: ideas for radical reforms to the British government

By on 18/03/2015 | Updated on 18/03/2015

For the first time since the Second World War all three major parties in Britain have current or recent experience of government: the present administration is made up of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and follows a Labour government. Optimists might argue that this means any critique of governmental structures and workings voiced by the opposition will be based on first-hand experience rather than an inherent urge to criticise everything.

Indeed, some perceptions of what works and what does not in the British civil service seem to cut across party politics: two years ago, Nick Herbert, a Conservative MP, and John Healey, a Labour MP, got together and formed GovernUp, a think tank aimed at improving the British government machinery – commonly referred to as ‘Whitehall’.

Herbert, who left his role as minister for police and criminal justice in September 2012, and Healey, who held various ministerial roles over 11 years until May 2010, agree that there are “systemic issues” in the British civil service which need to be addressed. Both believe that Britain’s system of public administration, designed in the 19th century, “is no longer equal to the challenges facing our country” regardless of which party wins the general election on 7 May.

GovernUp launched its set of reform proposals at an event on 11 February, which was attended by dozens of some of the UK’s highest-ranking officials, ministers and economists, as well as several other think tanks. GovernUp’s ideas include a decentralisation act, enshrining a presumption that services should be delivered locally – Britain runs a highly centralized system with central government holding a tight grip over local government spending. They include proposals to offer training for politicians before they take office and once they are in post; and calls for ministers to be given more support, and secretaries of state to be allowed to appoint teams of policy advisers from outside the civil service. GovernUp suggests that ministers themselves could be appointed from outside parliament.

Another key proposal – set out in one research paper titled ‘Repurposing Whitehall’ – is to create a new Office of Budget and Management, combining the spending functions of the Treasury with the Cabinet Office and a “powerful management board responsible for the professionalism and effectiveness of government”. GovernUp argues that the centre of government, made up of the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, is too weak and lacks “clear authority over the whole [government] machine, which means, in practice, neither central nor departmental leadership can be held properly to account for day-to-day operation or change management”.

Some insiders have warned against an excessive concentration of power at the centre of government and Julian McCrae, deputy director of think tank Institute for Government (IfG), which aims to increase government effectiveness, has also expressed his doubts. He refers to the proposal as “ambitious” in his blog and tells Global Government Forum that the scale of this reform proposal must not be underestimated: “You’d be abolishing the Treasury without actually mentioning that you are abolishing the Treasury. On the scale of what you could be talking about in organisational change, that’s about as big as you can go for Whitehall.”

While McCrae welcomes a lot of GovernUp’s proposals on training, skills and localism, he also notes that some of them gave him “pause for thought”, adding that one recommendation caused him “a sharp intake of breath”: the proposal to turn governmental delivery organisations into ‘Autonomous Business Units’. The units, which would have a financial and operating framework and a business mission, would report to their sponsor minister. Chief executives of units whose operations are particularly significant to the government’s programme, would be appointed by ministers.

McCrae warns that policy-makers often are already too detached from the reality of delivering their policies and that this proposal could exacerbate the problem: “Isn’t the separation of Whitehall’s ‘strategic core’ and the operational part going to compound an issue where you get a Whitehall which is largely devoted to strategic thinking and policy-making with very little input from the people who actually run things and know what’s happening on the ground?”

He also says that Whitehall is “not particularly talented at operating what are quite sophisticated government relationships between themselves and autonomous bodies” and that there are often “a lot of tensions”. McCrae’s comments follow a report by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), which accused the government of operating an “opaque and confused” system when managing its arm’s-length bodies. In a report published last November, PASC said “there is insufficient understanding across government about how arms-length government should work”.

One person who has experience of running arm’s-length bodies is Rob Whiteman, who was chief executive of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) for two years before it was abolished and its functions brought back into the Home Office in 2013. He tells Global Government Forum that having ministers appoint chief executives of delivery agencies would “significantly improve [their] relationship” and also put “more pressure on ministers to make good policy”.

Currently, Whiteman says, ministers are “held to account for every bit of minutiae”, adding that he feels “sorry for them”. If, however, they were to appoint those leading the agencies delivering the policies they set, ministers could “have greater confidence in the people running these business units and therefore the system could work better because there could be clearer accountability.” He adds that “if they’re accountable for who they appoint rather than having to manage everything directly, that might work better.”

Another proposal is to “progressively create a much more unified strategic core for government, ‘One Whitehall’, by turning the policy and headquarters functions of the civil service into a single organisation, built around the priorities of the government of the day, and breaking down with much more working across traditional boundaries.” The report says that the new ‘One Whitehall’ would “look and feel, from the outside and for people working in it, much more like a single organisation” with civil servants’ “employment relationship based on working for One Whitehall, not a department”.

However, McCrae asks: “What does an ‘employment relationship’ mean? Does it mean the name on the contract you hold is ‘One Whitehall’ as opposed to the department or does it mean that terms and conditions are unified, which is quite a large change?”

Government departments were granted full delegation for terms and conditions in the 1990s, which means that any civil servant is employed by his/her department, rather than the government. Unification of these terms and conditions has been attempted in the past but failed at many a legal hurdle.

But Martin Wheatley, author of Repurposing Whitehall, says that GovernUp’s plans would not “include any early moves to consolidate terms and conditions because we’re aware that every time that’s been looked at it looks very complicated and costly.” He adds that “the issue is more about behaviour and relationships.”

Whiteman argues that GovernUp is “part of the discussion – not the end of it” and that the proposals can kickstart a debate about “what a better system could look like”. McCrae echoes his view: he says GovernUp has covered a “huge amount of ground”, but notes that some ideas may require some further thinking-through.

One aspect GovernUp may have failed to consider sufficiently in its proposals could be the stringent rules around the civil service appointment process, which is overseen by the Civil Service Commission (CSC). Besides enabling ministers to appoint chief executives of delivery units, GovernUp also wants ministers to be able to appoint policy advisers into their offices. Currently, the only government officials appointed directly by ministers are special advisers, who are political appointments and thus not bound by the civil service code of impartiality.

Sir David Normington, who leads the CSC, sent a letter to co-founders Herbert and Healey on 3 March warning them that enabling ministers to appoint any civil servants would mean these would no longer be “impartial in any sense of the word and certainly not in the sense required by the civil service code”. He also said that the proposal would “create a class of people in government – possibly several hundred – who are personally appointed by the minister and either politically or personally aligned with him.”

Whether the proposals are “desirable or publicly defensible,” he writes, they are not compatible with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which is “clear that there are only two distinct types of government employee: special advisers, who are appointed personally by their minister and are not legally bound to act impartially and objectively; and civil servants who are appointed on merit after fair and open competition and must act with impartiality and objectivity.” These, Normington says, “are not legal niceties.” Introducing a third type – civil servants appointed by ministers – would require a change of the law.

The people behind GovernUp may not have thought through the exact implications of all their proposals, but one thing GovernUp deserves credit for, Whiteman argues, is the degree of consensus it is seeking to achieve. “I think everybody agrees that the present system is broken but no one is quite certain what should replace it and I think what’s important about GovernUp is that they’re trying to work on a cross-party basis and build a consensus about what a new system might look like,” he says.

While GovernUp does not currently have the formal endorsement of any one party, there are signs that some agreement may be underway: the organisation is co-headed by members of opposing political convictions – Labour and Conservative – and counts a Liberal Democrat peer – Lord Razzal – as one of its members.

Current Conservative cabinet office minister Francis Maude gave a speech when the think tank launched its proposals last month in which he argued that the formation of GovernUp has led to a “high degree of consensus that the system needs urgent reform.” And his Labour counterpart, shadow cabinet secretary Lucy Powell, told the event that “getting me to agree with Francis [Maude] is a testament to the work [GovernUp has] been doing.”

However, even though this might now be the first time in more than 50 years that all main parties agree on an urgent need for reform, civil service reform is not the kind of hot topic politicians will use to win votes. And, as Wheatley told last month’s event, “the way the civil service and government works didn’t even make it to the top 35 issues the public care about, according to the last poll.”

With this election battle shaping up to be the most unpredictable in modern British history, forecasting which aspects of the government will be reformed under a new administration is next to impossible. And while senior government figures argue that the drive to change should come from within, analysts as well as GovernUp agree that the political leadership has to be there too. Success of any new system, Wheatley argues, “depends on political commitment: strong consistent political lines from the top of the government are very important.” The degree of this commitment will only transpire some time after May 7.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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