The Institute for Government was modestly successful in persuading the incoming UK government to pick up our Shaping Up recommendations – but it turns out that the place where we really had an impact was Ireland.
1) The department of the Taoiseach goes replaced with a smaller Cabinet Office
This will be focused on ensuring that the government’s strategic aims are reflected in every department’s plans. Pretty much in line with Shaping Up's recommendation for a whole of government strategy to form the basis for steering government.
2) Policy areas not core to this mission will go back to departments
Again in line with the Shaping Up Recommendation. The Irish are also planning a new Office of Public Spending and Modernisation, which sounds like the Office for Management and Budget proposal sketched out in Shaping Up.
3) Ministers are now going to sign public service agreements (PSAs) with their departments and agencies
These will be scrutinised by select committees, which all get powers equivalent to Ireland’s version of the Public Accounts Committee.
This injects some real accountability into the system – the UK’s PSAs never really had teeth and many of the targets were missed with no consequences - but as our analysis in State of the Service showed, the regime was even weaker in Ireland.
The Irish case for reform
Exciting stuff, especially when you put it in the context of a broader public service reform programme that aims to devolve more power to the frontline - and recognises that a lack of joining up has become a real problem for the republic’s government.
To quote the Fine Gael programme:
"A key condition of fiscal consolidation, economic renewal and public service re-organisations in other countries has been the creation of a skilled, joined-up strategic centre at the heart of the government, with a sense of collective responsibility, a shared analysis of the way forward and a coherent approach to achieving its objectives."
The Irish rationale for a more strategic centre sounds eerily familiar:
"there is at present a vacuum at the heart of Irish government structures. There is little evidence of central co-ordination and integration of Departmental strategies and alignment between Departmental strategies and the Programme for Government. In other words, there is no central co-ordination of what different Ministers and their Departments are doing to ensure the most economical achievement of results."
Back in the UK
This is in marked contrast to the view taken by the UK Coalition. In its early days, the Conservatives, in particular, tended to have an almost ideological aversion to strong central departments – they smacked of the command and control culture that ministers wanted to do away with.
Others argued a strong centre was incompatible with the drive to localism. However, many in local government would welcome a stronger cross-government vision of localism and the Big Society.
Recent developments in No.10 suggest some rebalancing - with the creation of the new No.10 Policy and Implementation Unit alongside the increasingly powerful Efficiency and Reform group – but still stopping short of the Irish vision.
We don’t want to replicate Ireland’s crisis but, as it tries to develop its own vision of civil service reform, the cabinet could do worse than keep an eye on Enda Kelly’s experiment.
Simon Parker is a former Fellow of the Institute for Government and Director of the New Local Government Network