Working to make government more effective


The centre of government should do more to help the prime minister

Sir Michael Barber should prioritise strengthening No.10 and the Cabinet Office

The prime minister has asked Sir Michael Barber to review the effectiveness of his government operation. A priority should be to strengthen No.10 and the Cabinet Office, as Alex Thomas argues in a new paper on the Heart of the Problem 

One of the off-the-record briefings that caught the Westminster Village’s imagination last year was the moment Boris Johnson was reported to have asked who was responsible for the government’s coronavirus lockdown exit strategy. Sir Mark (now Lord) Sedwill, then cabinet secretary, supposedly replied “you are”.

The former civil servant has since suggested that this was good-spirited banter between the two men. But the account of this particular meeting seemed to encapsulate the frustration of a prime minister who thought he was giving direction from No.10 but found that his commands provoked no response.

This frustration has prompted Johnson to ask Sir Michael Barber, known as an expert in “deliverology” – identifying government priorities and getting things done – to review his operation to help make things work better. Barber has been helping this government and the last improve its accountability mechanisms since 2017, but this is a wider-ranging rapid review – and Barber has an opportunity to introduce significant improvements to how the centre of government works.

The Cabinet Office and No.10 need strengthening

One of the problems Barber will be considering is the effectiveness of No.10 and the Cabinet Office. Both are good at brokering between departments and co-ordinating activity, but the Cabinet Office in particular is less able to raise decisions above a lowest common denominator compromise. And there is more the centre of government can do to implement policies and make things happen. The coalition government’s abolition of Tony Blair’s Barber-designed delivery unit, in particular weakened its capacity to help the prime minister hold his cabinet to account for delivering on agreed policies.

The prime minister’s top civil servant, the cabinet secretary, also has limited powers to make things happen across government. While he can shape the hiring and firing of his permanent secretary colleagues, much of his influence is in practice reliant on his status and personal leadership skills. He – alongside the government’s chief operating officer also based in the Cabinet Office – need to persuade other heads of department to co-operate on the functional running of the civil service.

Coronavirus and – to some extent – the government’s Brexit response have exposed these weaknesses. The government has found it hard to take timely decisions, too often failed to anticipate the consequences of its actions (or inactions) and been unable to co-ordinate activity across departments. There are signs – at least before the prime minister's "reset" at the end of last year – that weak ministers and a cowed civil service meant that the centre was disempowering officials and clogging up activity rather than setting direction and holding ministers to account. 

Four ways to improve the prime minister’s support

Fixing these problems does not necessarily need major surgery, and heeding the regular call for a new “prime minister’s department” would be – like so many machinery of government organisational changes – a distraction. Instead the prime minister should learn from the successes and failures of previous administrations and adapt the current structures in the centre of government.

First, the prime minister should strengthen the Cabinet Office’s role in agreeing the government’s plans. He should set out the government’s objectives clearly and seek explicit and public cabinet agreement to a policy programme. The cabinet secretary in turn can then hold permanent secretaries to account for their part in the implementation of that programme.

Secondly, as part of that sign-off the cabinet should agree a small number of top cross-cutting priorities, the delivery of which is then led by teams based in the Cabinet Office working under the direct authority of the prime minister. Whether on social care, climate change or levelling up, these intractable problems need leadership from the centre.

Next – learning from Barber’s personal experience – the prime minister should set up a new central delivery unit in the Cabinet Office which has a far stronger remit and capacity than the existing teams holding departments to account.

Finally, the cabinet secretary and government chief operating officer should have more responsibility for directly running the civil service, including authority over cross-cutting services within government departments such as its finance, digital and commercial functions.

New structures cannot substitute for prime ministerial leadership 

These improvements will help the prime minister impose his grip on the government. They are sensible administrative changes to sharpen up the Cabinet Office – already staffed by some of the most talented people in government. But bureaucratic tweaking cannot substitute for the sustained attention and skills of the prime minister himself. Barber’s delivery unit worked well for Tony Blair because he made sure it had plenty of personal prime ministerial authority and time. When Blair’s attention wandered, and then once Gordon Brown took over at No.10, the unit’s status declined.

The success of Boris Johnson’s government ultimately depends on the man himself giving ministers clear priorities and holding them to account. A prime minister deserves and can create a stronger centre to support his or her work, but no departmental reforms can substitute for personal attention and focus from the figure at the top.

Prime minister
Institute for Government

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