03 April 2014

As the UK coalition approaches its final year, one conundrum occupying minds in Whitehall is the question of what support the two coalition parties should be entitled to as each develops its own policy plans for the next term. And if coalition parties are supported to develop their post-2015 thinking then what should be the offer to the Opposition?

In our new research paper, the Institute for Government discusses lessons Whitehall could learn from Scotland, and the ‘separate space’ system that operated in the final months of the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition up until 2007. Separate space allowed the two coalition parties – and the major opposition parties – to receive civil service support to help inform policy development.

Why separate space was created

The system was set up amid concerns that the coalition parties were growing reluctant to share future policy ideas within government, as they wished to keep plans secret from their coalition partner. Perhaps ironically, this was a problem due to the strong convention of sharing information and official advice between the two coalition parties.

One official recalled how “[some] ministers had less trust in their coalition colleagues, or were more inherently political, and were therefore more inclined to try and hold ideas close to their chests.” For the Civil Service, the fear was that they would be unprepared for the next term if they were shut out from the parties’ thinking. For the parties, the concern was that their manifestos would suffer from not having had civil service scrutiny.

The expectation was that a further coalition would emerge after the election (although in the event the SNP formed a single-party minority government instead). So an additional motivation was to avoid repeating what were seen as the mistakes of 2003, when flawed policies were entrenched into a highly prescriptive programme for the second Labour-Lib Dem coalition.

It was therefore decided to set out clear rules for each party to request information in confidence to assist and inform their development of policy for the next term. This was a more limited form of support than normal civil service advice to ministers. One special adviser explained: “We didn’t go to them [civil servants] saying, ‘This is a problem, how do we fix it?’ It was ‘This is a policy idea, how much would it cost, what should we be aware of, would it work?’”

So civil servants provided information on costs, implementation challenges, estimated timelines, and issues such as relevant legislative competence. But they could not give a view on whether a proposal was a good idea or set out alternative options to achieve the same goal.

As the two coalition parties were being offered this distinct channel of support, it was decided that the main opposition parties should be made an equivalent offer, going beyond the more limited conventions (inherited from Whitehall) of pre-election contact between senior officials and shadow ministers.

It was therefore decided to create a single, integrated system for the four main parties to access civil service support. The system was coordinated through a “central clearing house” reporting to the head of the civil service which kept an eye on the proportionality and propriety of parties’ requests. The centre then commissioned the necessary work from appropriate parts of the government, and developed guidance to ensure that all officials were clear about what they should and should not do. All requests were kept confidential from other parties – and ministers had to respect the right of other parties to use ‘their’ officials in this way.

How well did it work?

There were several challenges in operating this system. One was the novelty for civil servants of having to operate in two spaces at once – supporting the government as a whole with necessary pre-election business and policy implementation, as well as carrying out party-specific work through separate space. But with clear guidance and support this did not pose serious difficulties. Similarly, the extra resource demands on officials’ time was not a big problem since there was little new coalition policy emerging in this period. Another small issue was that having set up the system, there was nothing to stop the parties from using it to uncover weaknesses in their rivals’ plans, which went against the spirit of the system.

The impact of the system should also not be overstated. Separate space did not permit officials to carry out full analyses or to prepare detailed implementation plans, so there was no guarantee that manifesto plans were achievable as intended. The impact on manifestos was also limited by the fact that the facility only opened six months before polling day, when parties were at an advanced stage of policy development.

But overall, the parties and the Civil Service felt that the system worked well and in the interests of all sides. Ministers and officials respected the confidentiality of the system. Guidance was clear and consistently followed. Good working relationships were built or maintained between officials and the respective parties (both governing and opposition). Policy dialogue between the parties and officials continued during the period, enabling the civil service to prepare for different possible governments following the election. And – though harder to prove – there was a feeling that the system had helped to improve the quality of manifesto proposals.

Scotland does not hold all the answers for Whitehall – the scale and political context differs greatly between the two countries. But there is much of value to be considered in the separate space experience, and senior figures in the UK coalition should consider these lessons as they prepare for their final year.

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