Working to make government more effective


The prime minister’s chief of staff can restore order to the government 

Civil servants look to be back in favour as the prime minister appoints a Treasury man as his chief of staff

Civil servants look to be back in favour as the prime minister appoints a Treasury man as his chief of staff. The new No.10 boss needs to show that discipline at the centre of government is a better way to run the country, says Alex Thomas

The appointment of Dan Rosenfield as the prime minister’s chief of staff is another conventional pick from a government that has often acted far more traditionally than its furious briefings suggest. Rosenfield had a successful career in the Treasury, including as principal private secretary to two chancellors of the exchequer, before heading to the private sector. 

He will need his knowledge of government to succeed as chief of staff. No10 is a court, and Rosenfield must establish himself as the prime minister’s most important political courtier. He will need authority over the special advisers working on communications, policy development and parliamentary liaison, as well as a strong relationship with the civil servants in No10. 

A chief of staff is inevitably political 

Rosenfield starts with an advantage among some Conservative MPs in that he is not Dominic Cummings. Many had come to distrust the ex-adviser and were put out by his evident contempt for them. But nor is Rosenfield a true blue party figure like other recent chiefs Gavin Barwell or Nick Timothy. The appointment looks to be more in the Jonathan Powell or Ed Llewellyn mould, both diplomats who focused on running a smooth operation as much as the politics of the day. 

It is true that there are plenty of other people in No10 to worry about politics. But to be the prime minister’s top special adviser Rosenfield will have to build sharp political antennae. He will need credibility with the rest of his special adviser team, in No10 and across government departments, while navigating the interests of ministers and MPs. It is Rosenfield who must have the conversations the prime minister is unwilling or unable to have, and to support his boss on the most difficult matters like hiring and firing colleagues. 

No10 will need to pick its battles 

However strongly Rosenfield establishes himself in No10, no adviser wins on every point. One of the reasons Dominic Cummings achieved less than he might have done is that he was at war with every part of the system at the same time. That was hard-wired into the Cummings style, but it makes success hard to achieve. 

Jonathan Powell, as Tony Blair’s chief of staff, prioritised work on the Northern Ireland peace process. Gavin Barwell had no choice but to be consumed by the Brexit crisis. Rosenfield should identify his priorities and make time for them. For the moment that must be the coronavirus response, especially vaccine distribution, and the fallout from whatever happens at the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January – which is Rosenfield’s first day in the job. 

Rosenfield will need to show that his style works better than what went before 

More broadly, the appointment signals an end – or at least a pause – in the Cummings-inspired “hard rain” falling on the civil service. Rosenfield is an ex-civil servant handed a political post, just like Brexit negotiator David Frost. It is reported that one of his conditions for taking the job included “the rule of law, constitutional proprieties, less of the quixotic attacks on institutions”. 

There will be civil servants breathing a sigh of relief as they survey the casualties of the last 12 months. They will welcome a more sober, constructive tone, and know that government functions best when ministers and their departments are working positively alongside each other. 

But this is now a test about whether the new management is better than the old. Along with Simon Case, the new cabinet secretary, Rosenfield needs to demonstrate that their way is better than the alternative. They need to do that in a government led by a prime minister who will still want to follow his instincts, and with ministers and MPs who remain sceptical about the civil service. 

So the government’s reset does not mean a simple return to the status quo. To survive and prosper in the long term, the civil service needs to show that it is fit for the demands placed on it by ministers and citizens. The coronavirus pandemic response has exposed gaps in risk management and contingency response, operational capacity and policy-making, all of which need to be addressed.  

With Allegra Stratton also starting her public press briefings in the new year, Rosenfield will be at the heart of a refreshed political team in No10. His appointment should help to consolidate the government’s shaky reset, but its success relies on the prime minister rather than his advisers. It is not yet clear, however, whether the prime minister’s resolution to reset will last the distance. 

Civil servants
Chief of staff
Johnson government
Number 10
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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