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Is scrapping Extended Ministerial Offices a mistake?

In among the pre-Christmas data-dump, the Government quietly changed the rules around ministers making direct appointments to their teams. Nicola Hughes argues that this is a mistake. 

In a little noticed change to the Ministerial Code, the Extended Ministerial Office, or EMO, is no more. Introduced in 2013, EMOs were in response to research finding that ministers were not getting enough say over who they could appoint to their immediate teams or enough support to drive through their policy priorities in office.

EMOs are not supposed to be about ministers recruiting more special advisers, or detracting from the traditional private office of diary managers and private secretaries. Rather, the intention was that ministers could recruit expert policy advisers as temporary, non-political, civil servants to help them on key initiatives, working with permanent departmental staff. This would help bring more outside energy into Whitehall, in line with the open policy agenda. They have been dropped after just three years – so what went wrong?

Initially, take up of the EMO model was low. Ministers were put off by seemingly burdensome guidance from the Cabinet Office, including requirements under the Coalition Government for sign-off by both parties. But after the 2015 election, five departments formally adopted an EMO, including the Department for Education and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra).

Liz Truss, then Secretary of State at Defra, was a ‘huge fan’ of the EMO as she explained in a speech at the Institute last year. She appointed a data specialist from the Open Data Institute to work on Defra’s open data programme and a food campaigner to work on promotion of British produce. Defra’s Permanent Secretary, Claire Moriarty, agreed that these appointments were useful: ‘[they] allowed us to access a different group of people who can come in and ask questions – who see the world in a different way… They are specialists but they’re not like special advisers’.  

Undoubtedly, there were some problems with EMOs. After all, the majority of departments did not adopt them (formally at least – ministers can find more informal ways of getting outside expertise in). It was striking that there was little transparency as to who was being appointed where and why, or shared learning about what worked in terms of effective recruitment and management for these roles. Some ministers, like David Willetts, were concerned that ‘bonkers’ EMOs would create ‘a second structure of mini experts within your own private office’ and as such isolate ministers from their departments.

But it does seem a shame that they have been canned without any proper evaluation of their merits. As with debates around special advisers, government seems much more concerned about numbers and cost than it is about effectiveness – politically savvy perhaps, but it won’t make the wheels of Whitehall run any more smoothly.  

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