13 February 2015

The new think tank GovernUp has published six papers on reforming government. Julian McCrae reflects on some of the ideas.

There’s a lot to digest in the six papers on government effectiveness launched this week by GovernUp, the new think tank set up last year by MPs Nick Herbert and John Healey. There’s much in their analysis that most people will agree with, as well as some recommendations that make one pause for thought – and a few bits that might not help to build the consensus that GovernUp, rightly, says it is trying to achieve.

Reading the papers, I was struck by the level of consensus around some points that used to be controversial. GovernUp’s call for greater financial, commercial and other professional skills in the civil service dates back to at least Fulton’s 1968 report. What is new is that most people now agree how to tackle this long-standing problem: the ‘functional’ agenda – essentially making sure there are clear responsibilities for developing professional capability across Whitehall – is making real progress, as was clear when civil service CEO John Manzoni spoke at the Institute last month. However, if this agenda is not to stall, it’s vital that it’s clearly linked to the policy priorities of the government that emerges after May’s election.

Another welcome point is GovernUp’s call for ministers to receive training, mentoring and coaching to help them do their jobs. When I started working at the Institute, many old hands from both the political and civil service worlds told me that you can’t prepare for the job of being a minister; and even if you could, politicians would refuse – fearing that, in our political culture, it would be seen as a sign of weakness. Yet the Institute has been working with MPs from all major parties for six years, helping politicians to prepare for government and existing ministers to reflect on their performance and develop in their roles. I’m more convinced than ever that it is perfectly possible to help politicians become more effective ministers, and that there is a real appetite for such support among front-benchers. It’s worth noting, though, that – as the relevant GovernUp report states – this work must respect the skills and backgrounds that politicians bring to ministers’ responsibilities; it is certainly not about creating ministerial ‘cogs’ to fit perfectly into a Whitehall machine.

Another area of near-consensus is the need for more decentralisation. GovernUp’s Localism 2.0 paper makes some bold recommendations on local leaderships, council finance and public service commissioning. But as GovernUp’s Research Director Martin Wheatley said at the start of his presentation, the real issue is how you achieve the critical mass behind the need for change. Many in the room had been around these debates once, twice or several times during their careers. There are many forces that need to be aligned if progress is to be made this time, and it will be interesting to see whether GovernUp’s proposals can engage those who need to be on board.

The digital agenda is now one of the hottest topics in Whitehall, and the subject of another of GovernUp’s papers. Mike Bracken, the head of the Government Digital Service, spoke recently at the Institute to paint a radically different future for how we do government. And there appears to be great interest in the agenda among people such as Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, and in places such as the Treasury. The GovernUp paper set out some helpful markers for future reformers on crucial areas, including improving data sharing and utilising the power of real-time performance data.

Probably the bit of these papers that gave me most pause for thought was the structural reforms proposed for Whitehall. Autonomous operational business units throughout the civil service; merging all departments into a strategic core, provisionally named ‘One Whitehall’; a new ‘Office of Budget and Management’ combining Treasury’s spending side with Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group – it’s an ambitious agenda. So ambitious, indeed, that changes such as the abolition of the Treasury are merely implicit consequences of the reform plans!

For me, it is not the scale of these changes that is slightly worrying; it is the lack of a clear link to people’s experience of government. Enduring changes such as the creation of DWP were rooted in a need to change how people experience the state: it was the desire to bring together people's conversations about claiming benefits and getting into work that led to the merger of benefits offices and employment exchanges – in turn demanding the merger that created a new Whitehall department. It is not clear how GovernUp’s radical proposals for Whitehall’s structure relate to a need to change the way that people interact with government.

Finally, the potential unhelpful bit for those trying to build a consensus for change. There is always a risk of overplaying one’s case. One of the GovernUp reports confidently states that Whitehall is “not fit for purpose”. This is a sweeping term – and perhaps true if you think that in order to be fit for purpose, Whitehall should be able to solve all the ‘wicked’ issues faced by our society. But against that yardstick, no country in the world has a system of government that is “fit for purpose”.

Against more reasonable yardsticks, it’s difficult to judge Whitehall this way: it compares well to most central governments, particularly of large, developed countries, and has obviously changed hugely in its capability and composition in the last 20-30 years. Nonetheless, there are of course many areas in which other nations perform better than us, and many ways in which our system can be improved. In the run-up to the election, the Institute will be putting forward our own thoughts on how we can make UK government more effective – focusing both on the early decisions facing our next administration, and some of the longer-term challenges.

Meanwhile, though, it’s important not to overstate the case for change; and in the process, end up creating pantomime villains. Listening to some exchanges at GovernUp’s conference, there was a risk that civil servants – including even those leading the current reforms – were being cast in this role. I’m certain this is not the intention of GovernUp, but I do think it is a risk that is being run.