The UK government needs a stronger centre, says former Cabinet Office minister

By on 12/11/2020
Francis Maude suggested the Treasury and the Cabinet Office work much more closely together and function more like the Office of Management and Budget in the US. Credit: Harry Metcalfe via Flickr

Former Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, has said the UK should strengthen the centre of government and suggested potentially creating a new Department for Prime Minister.

Maude, who has been undertaking a short review into the performance of the Cabinet Office, was speaking at an Institute for Government (IfG) online event, ‘Reform at the centre of government’, yesterday.

“I’m not big for tinkering with the structure of government – it tends to be a displacement activity that gives people an alibi for not actually doing the real work that needs to be done,” he said. “But I think structuring the centre of government a bit differently would pay real dividends.”

The former Tory minister and member of the House of Lords also said that the government cannot compete with private sector wages for civil service leaders. When discussing ministers’ salaries, however, he said they should “definitely be paid more”.

A strong core

Maude’s comments hark back to the reforms he undertook when leading the Cabinet Office through the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. As part of his changes, for example, he created strong central functions to oversee a variety of civil service professions.

In response to a question about whether there should be a Department for Prime Minister, Maude said the UK was unusual in that it didn’t have one. “You need to think of the centre of government as being these three entities – Number 10 Downing Street, Cabinet Office and Treasury,” he said.

“And maybe configure it in a different way, a more joined up way. But you do need to work on the basis that this is a single organisation,” he added.

The Treasury and the Cabinet Office should be more coordinated, according Maude. “I think there’s a case for bringing much more closely together, the spending part of the Treasury with the kind of functional centre of government in the Cabinet Office,” he said. “Maybe something like the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the United States.”

He went on to cite Australia and Canada as examples where the government has a budget ministry separate from a ministry of finance.

A flexible response

Officials in No10 have reportedly been critical of the Cabinet Office’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. “The Cabinet Office simply collapsed when faced with the enormity of coronavirus,” one Whitehall official told the Financial Times.

The government needs the ability to ‘flex” in response to circumstances, said Maude. “If you look at any big, complicated business, a multinational corporation, what you have is a strong centre,” he said. “In good times, the centre relaxes the strings and there’s more autonomy given to different functions and divisions and departments. In the difficult times you very quickly draw those strings in, so more controlled from the centre.”

“Horizontal functions” – such as financial management, procurement, digital and IT, property, and project management – also need to be controlled from the centre, according to Maude. There needs to be “strong leadership of these cross-cutting functions at the centre of government,” he said.

This approach would require three elements to work, according to Maude. These are: highly skilled leaders of each function; a “hardcore” of highly capable staff; and a mandate, which he said was “critically important” and “the thing that too often is too weak”.

Money talks

When it comes to leading such functions, however, Maude said the government cannot compete with the private sector on pay. While they would want “one of the top five people in the country” to take on these leadership roles, “there is absolutely no way in which the government is ever going to be able to offer pay which is even comparable with what they will command in the private sector.”

Instead, the government wants leaders with “a strong public service gene” and whose “reward is to have the chance to make change happen on a big scale.” He added: “I’m not saying that the money doesn’t matter. It does matter, but it’s not the decisive factor.”

On ministers’ pay he took a different view, saying they should “definitely be paid more”, adding that “British ministers are massively underpaid” in comparison with other countries.

Maude said two parts of the review are complete and have been delivered to government. The findings may be published in due course.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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