Professor Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath.

The new report from the Institute for Government’s (IfG) Commission on the Centre of Government is an important intervention in an area of policymaking that is often opaque, and little understood beyond political insiders, former occupants of high office, and a small number of academic specialists. It is likely to be closely read by those preparing to take the reins of power after the next general election and is well timed to inform their deliberations. So what to make of its analysis and recommendations?

The diagnosis in the report is largely correct. No10 is underpowered and over-staffed, poorly organised and prone to faction. It lacks strategic capabilities and interferes too much in departmental business. The Cabinet Office is a bloated bag of responsibilities without purpose, unloved by its staff. The Treasury fills the gap left by these two: it is overpowerful and uses its control of public spending to set the direction, strategy and much of the policy of government. Corporately, the civil service is let down by the undue concentration of powers in the Cabinet Secretary, who simply cannot give sufficient time to managerial leadership and performance improvement.

The Commission has some sensible answers to these problems. Like others before it, the Commission proposes the creation of a new Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, while hiving off management of the civil service to a new Department of the Civil Service, with a board to hold the service to account. It follows this logic through in arguing for splitting the role of the Cabinet Secretary into two: the Cabinet Secretary should support and be accountable to the Prime Minister, while a separate individual should be Head of the Civil Service, accountable to a new First Secretary of State.  So far, so good.

The Commission errs in other recommendations, however. Because the Cabinet has become too large and is not the place, in practice, where policy decisions are taken, the Commission recommends a new Executive Committee of the Cabinet. This would set the priorities for government and determine its fiscal rules and departmental spending allocations. It would be made up of the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the First Secretary of State (who would be responsible for the new Department of the Civil Service and the development and delivery of the government’s policy programme.)

Speaking at the launch of the Commission’s report, Gordon Brown and John Major both rejected this proposal, for the good reason that it would cause more political management problems than it solves. It is impossible and undesirable to exclude senior Cabinet Ministers from key decisions affecting their departments, and so the kind of bilateral or trilateral discussions that take place between a Prime Minister, Chancellor and their senior colleagues would happen anyway. Resentment of exclusion from the inner circle would generate new difficulties and pressures. The members of the executive would be forced to spend time handling the concerns and complaints of their colleagues.

The proposal is largely based on the experience of the Quad in the Coalition government. This was important in managing the two parties in the Coalition. Something like it would be needed again were another coalition formed. But it is less suitable to a single party majority government.

The Executive Committee is also proposed as a means of reining in the overmighty Treasury, by giving the rest of the centre more control over priority setting and public spending decisions.  This makes more sense than splitting up the Treasury into growth and finance ministries, as has long been advocated, and sometimes tried. But the power of the Treasury is ultimately more about political economy of the UK, and which interests and ideologies are embodied at the core of the state, than it is about the structure and operations of government. There is a long history to the Treasury’s power that will not be addressed by reforms of the kind advocated by the Commission.

There is much more to be said about this fascinating report. As a former Head of the No10 Policy Unit, I agree with the Commission’s proposal to cut the unit back down from its current size of 25 members to 10 or so, but I would keep its policy function separate from delivery management. I would also address directly the weakness of the centre in strategic policymaking. The former Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (PMSU) played the role of strategic policy development very well. It was able to take on longer term policy development without being drawn into the day-to-day work of No10, and so helped the government renew its programme in office. It secured influence by direct commissions from the Prime Minister’s key staff and it was a place where good outsiders could come into central government. Its abolition by David Cameron was a mistake.

The report could make more of opening up the centre to external impulse and influence, or experimentation in Whitehall with ‘inside-out and upside-down’ government, as Geoff Mulgan, a former PMSU head, puts it. But the Commission is right to register that care needs to be given to devolution and the relationship between the centre of the UK government and the devolved administrations, English combined authorities and local government. The danger with the current fashion for ‘mission-orientated’ government is that it becomes a reinvention of (centralised) new public management. This must be avoided.

These issues notwithstanding, the Commission states some blunt truths about the centre of government. It poses issues that need tackling. Many of its reforms are overdue. So it is to be hoped that it is taken seriously by those who are called upon to implement it.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Culture and policy, Evidence and policymaking, Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics


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