End short-term thinking and focus on delivery, civil service reform panel told

By on 07/12/2020 | Updated on 07/12/2020
Number 10 needs to drive delivery of policy. Credit: 10 Downing Street/ Flickr

The UK civil service must look beyond policymaking to focus on implementation and delivery, former senior political advisers told an influential panel examining civil service reform last week.

Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1997 to 2007, told the online evidence session: “One of the big frustrations of the first term was not being able to get to delivery.

“This is not unique to UK: I work all round the world, and pretty much everywhere there’s a problem in governments in actually delivering anything concrete on the ground.” Yet delivery should be the focus of the civil service and the government, he said, and there needs to be a mechanism to get that “front and centre”.

Lord Barwell, chief of staff to Theresa May from 2017 to 2019, had a similar message: “There are cultural issues with the civil service, which tends to recruit people who are brilliant generators of policy ideas, but don’t necessarily have the skills you want in project management and delivery,” he said.

From thinking to doing

The former chiefs of staff were speaking to the Commission for Smarter Government, a panel that aims to map out a path forward on civil service reform. This session covered the role of Number 10 and driving government from the centre.

Commenting on the topic, commissioner Baroness Finn – a former Cabinet Office special adviser with close links to the department’s current minister, Michael Gove – noted that successive prime ministers, including Tony Blair, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, have complained about weak policy implementation.

At the hearing Barwell commented that one of the problems is the short-term nature of the media cycle, which encourages politicians to make lots of announcements. A smaller number of big announcements would be better, he said.

Another barrier to delivery noted by Barwell is changes to the way legislation is made in the UK. Much primary legislation is far less detailed than previously, with many decisions left for ministers to work out under secondary legislation. “That bakes in a load of delay, because you turn your Bill into an Act, then you spend the next year passing all the secondary legislation, which is actually the stuff that does what you were trying to do,” he commented.

There is also a failure of both politicians and civil servants to understand the extent to which power is devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as mayoralities in major cities, Barwell added, noting that the tension here has been highlighted during the pandemic.

Look ahead

Powell said that the both the British and US political systems have almost no space for long-term thinking: “That is our biggest single disadvantage. You don’t have to be China and be a dictatorship in order to have long term thinking – it is possible, but you do have to have the culture of Singapore or somewhere like that to allow you to have the knowledge that you’re not going to change radically in policy.”

Baroness Morgan of Huyton, who was senior advisor to Tony Blair from 1997 to 2005, said that during her period in government ministers often had to push reluctant departments into collaborative projects. The Sure Start policy, which helped young families in poor areas with education, health, parenting and employment, “was developed because ministers across departments wanted to do it,” she recalled. “Permanent secretaries were defending the corner of their department and budgets, but ministers told them frankly: ‘This is what we want to do, and we’re going to make this happen’. And we were able to facilitate that.”

At the time, she said, there was a powerful silo mentality and hierarchies within departments which did not want anything to do with a policy made by another department.

At the commission’s first hearing last month, former Tory chancellor George Osborne suggested the creation of a new set of leadership roles that would enable ministers to bring in figures from the business world.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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