We have grown used to the idea that policy reviews should be done by anyone other than the Civil Service.
The FT suggested that a review of policy should have been undertaken by a minister – but then points out that, in a coalition, the question of which minister is fraught. Would this be a Lib Dem review? Or a Conservative one? But even in the normal sort of coalition, a single party coalition, it is difficult to ask one minister to mark others’ performance. And that review would have to be supported by the Civil Service.
Others have suggested that it is strange that the Prime Minister has gone to an insider – rather than pick an external reviewer. Ministers do indeed have a strong revealed preference for borrowing the credibility of an external reviewer – usually a business person or academic. But the impact of their interventions is quite arbitrary and unstudied – and the impact is often more in the appointment than in any follow-through. But it is hard to understand why they are assumed to be better placed to review government policy than someone with unrivalled policy experience inside the machine.
In Australia, the Prime Minister would have been able to ask the standing Productivity Commission – a Treasury arm’s-length body with significant internal analytic capacity – to have a look at the issue. The New Zealanders have now copied that model. Under the last government, this might have been a subject to remit to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. But we don’t have that sort of standing capacity to call on in the UK.
The Cabinet Secretary is supposed to be the principal policy adviser to the Prime Minister. Successive postholders saw that role diminish under the last Labour government – turning instead to focus on management as the politicians made clear that they did not really want advice from the Civil Service on important policy issues. The advent of the ‘Heywood review’ could be taken as a sign of a reversion to the norm and a reassertion of faith in the ability of the Civil Service to produce policy advice useful to ministers. And now that it is in the public domain, might that mean that the review and the output will also be public? That would be a step forward in the open policy making promised in the Civil Service Reform Plan last year, which the Cabinet Office is supposed to champion. And we have long argued that the centre of government should be much more interested in the quality effectiveness of policy being pursued in departments. Hopefully this will set a useful precedent.
The oddity is not in the fact of Sir Jeremy being asked to look at what the government might do to tackle youth unemployment. The real oddity is that we have reached a point where a top civil servant being asked to produce policy advice to ministers – something at the core of his job description – is news.