28 March 2016

The EU referendum, and the fallout from the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, are absorbing much government time. Given the scale of the issues involved, this is not surprising. But there are worrying signs that this is causing distraction at a crucial time.

The Government has an ambitious agenda, aiming to deliver a budget surplus by 2019/20 while maintaining or even improving the standards of public services. It is doing this in a much more difficult situation than its original round of cuts in 2010. Many public services are now under serious pressure – for example, in 2010 the NHS was routinely meeting the four hour A&E wait target; it is now being routinely missed. This agenda requires a focus on implementation from ministers to ensure there are credible plans for delivering change, that Whitehall has the capability to deliver those plans, and that there is enough political capital to see the changes through. In all three areas, there are signs that things are not as they should be.

Credible plans

In a speech last September, the Prime Minister set out the reforms his Government needed to undertake. But since then, No 10 has been preoccupied with EU issues, and the consequent drain on prime ministerial time. So while the PM’s speech set out a vision of change, the plans published a few weeks ago by Whitehall lacked any real sense of coherence. Certainly there was no evidence that these were focused around the PM’s vision, or that there was much serious thought about delivery.

While it is not the PM’s job to check the detail of such plans, oversight is necessary to focus on the right places and ensure the underpinning work has been done. When this does not happen at the start, a lot of time and effort can be lost down the road – if you want a recent example, just look at what happened with the 2010 NHS reforms.

Delivery capability

Whitehall needs to invest in its capability to deliver the government’s agenda. But here again ministers risk being distracted by facing too many issues. The starkest example is probably in DWP. Its new Secretary of State not only faces the political headache of sorting disability benefits and finally delivering Iain Duncan Smith’s much-delayed Universal Credit system, he also has to ensure that the department successfully implements plans to digitise the administration of the benefit system.

The digital agenda is an essential part of government plans to reduce the cost (and improve the quality) of delivering services, reducing reliance on clerical processing. But the Digital Government Strategy, which should set out how Whitehall is going to approach these inherently high-risk transformations, has still not been published.

The right operating model would focus on a centre with responsibilities for supporting departments, while ensuring appropriate levels of assurance and consistency. But we seem to be in the worst of both worlds – with no strategy published almost a year into the government’s term, Whitehall may be operating without an agreement as to how it should operate. Depressingly this would not be unusual, but it also means ministers are allowing extra risk to be added to an already risky agenda.

Political capital

Political capital is a rare commodity that needs to be spent wisely. Again the current focus of the government on the EU referendum risks leaving little to expend on the trickiest areas of its wider agenda.

Take the Ministry of Justice’s prison reforms, which contains some of the most radical thinking in Government. Ken Clarke’s previous agenda of sentencing reform came unstuck in 2011 as it did not have sufficient political backing to see it through. So while there have been some speeches setting out ideas at a high level (including by the Prime Minister), the political battles are still to come. With the key players – the Secretary of State and Prime Minister – on opposite sides of the referendum debate, the Government’s ability to create the momentum around such reforms is questionable.

And of course the Budget has not helped. The most striking omission in the speech was any reference to how the Government was going to implement its existing agenda. Instead, it added to an already stretching agenda and accidentally expended a huge amount of political capital dealing with the subsequent fallout.

It is too early to conclude that the Government will fail in its ambitions. In some areas, such as the Northern Powerhouse, ministers are still pushing ahead. But in terms of planning, delivery capability and political capital, the signs are not good. Of course it is possible that much of the detailed planning and thinking has been done within Whitehall (if so, the Government should stop acting outwardly as if the opposite were true). And hopefully the forthcoming Queen’s Speech will focus on the legislation necessary to achieve the Government’s existing aims, and not become another commitment-generation exercise.

Time is not on the Government’s side. While nobody expects ministers to step back from the EU referendum campaign, they must be able to simultaneously devote the energy and leadership necessary to ensuring their wider agenda is achieved.