UK civil service ‘should be given stewardship role amid upheaval’ – as PM Sunak reorganises government

By on 07/02/2023 | Updated on 07/02/2023

The UK government has been urged to strengthen the role of civil servants as stewards of government capability and advice in order to maintain delivery through periods of uncertainty.

The recommendation forms part of the Institute for Government’s annual Whitehall Monitor report, which this year looks at the effects of political turmoil in 2022 – and comes as prime minister Rishi Sunak substantially reorganises the machinery of government in the UK.

Setting out the conclusions of the think tank’s 2023 report, Rhys Clyne, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG) highlighted that the last year had seen changes of prime minister, three changes of chancellor, 37 ministerial resignations and 66 cabinet appointments.

“Political instability is an integral, sometimes unavoidable, even sometimes desirable part of our democracy. But nevertheless, the civil service needs to be able to maintain the capabilities of departments [and] safeguard the provision of long-term advice to ministers, even amid short term uncertainty,” Clyne said.

“That should form the bedrock of a new stewardship responsibility for the civil service in the form of a new statutory footing for the institution.”

Hardwiring stewardship

The report – which was published on 31 January, one week before the UK government announced a series of changes to the machinery of government including reorganising the work of three government departments – called for a clear responsibility for the civil service to “manage the long-term capability of government and the provision of long-term policy advice”.

The Whitehall Monitor highlighted New Zealand’s Public Service Act of 2020 as an example of how this could be done. The legislation embeds the principle of stewardship in the country’s equivalent of the UK civil service code and requires departmental chief executives (equivalent to permanent secretaries in the UK) to publish “a long-term insights briefing at least once every three years”.

The IfG report added: “In practice, this could work by giving the head of the civil service a specific statutory duty to maintain the long-term capability of the government and a long-term view of policy. The head of the civil service would have the authority to make decisions about functional standards and the workforce. They would have greater authority to manage ‘horizontal’ capabilities across government in, for instance, HR, project delivery, legal, financial management or analysis.”

Against a backdrop of tightening departmental budgets and a two-year fall in workforce morale, Clyne said that reform had become urgent, and that “a clearer stewardship function for the civil service” was necessary to improve governance.

Also speaking at the event was Dame Una O’Brien, former permanent secretary at the department of health, who said the civil service has been expected to serve the government of the day, leading to questions about its duty beyond the current leadership.

“There are many policy options put to ministers across the board and that set out the longer-term implications of acting or not acting, but what’s really missing is a way of bringing this together at the centre,” she said.

Read more: Former department bosses blast ‘homogeneity’ in UK civil service

Changing incentives

The event also discussed the suggestion by former permanent secretary Philip Rycroft that ministerial advice should be published. At a talk hosted by the Reform think tank last month, Rycroft said that making civil servants’ advice to ministers publicly available for scrutiny would mark “a dramatic, transformational change” in how advice is managed long term.

Asked by GGF about the potential impact of such a change, Sally Warren – director of policy at The King’s Fund healthcare think tank and a former senior civil servant in the Department of Health and Social Care – said she worried that publishing such advice would produce an “unhelpful” change in the dynamic between civil servants and ministers.

“When we think about the role of the civil service, it is to give honest and frank advice about long term implications about policy choices. But it is also to help ministers grapple with real difficulties. All governments have to make priority decisions [and] no government can do everything they want to do as quickly as they want to do it. If you’re saying publish it, it feels a bit [like] two sides of an argument,” she said.

Read more: Details emerge of new UK civil service job cuts plan

Sunak restructures government

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has triggered more upheaval for UK civil servants after announcing an extensive revamp of central government departments.

Sunak has created four new departments – the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (both of which have been formed in the main from the previous Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, known as BEIS), a combined Department for Business and Trade (which takes BEIS’ remaining work and combines it with the Department for International Trade), and a re-focused Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with its digital responsibilities moved to the new science ministry.

Permanent secretaries have been announced for these departments. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will be led by Jeremy Pocklington, the current head of the communities department; the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will be led by Sarah Munby, previously head of BEIS; and the Department for Business and Trade will be led by existing Department for International Trade chief Gareth Davies.

Read more: Australia reorganises departments to reflect new government’s priorities

The new secretaries of state for the departments are:

  • Grant Shapps, secretary of state for energy security and net zero
  • Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for science, innovation and technology
  • Kemi Badenoch, secretary of state for business and trade
  • Lucy Frazer, secretary of state for culture, media, and sport

The UK government said the changes “will ensure the right skills and teams are focused on the prime minister’s five promises”, which are to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut healthcare waiting lists and stop the arrival of migrants by small boats over the English Channel.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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