The Institute’s new working paper, Supporting Heads of Government, compares the support the UK Prime Minister receives with five other countries and highlights some key differences, especially in the type and amount of advice he receives on policies.
The debate in the UK is typically characterised by a very negative attitude towards increasing the amount of assistance our leaders receive. So you might expect the evidence to show that the Prime Minister has a larger support system than in other countries; our international research suggests that this is not the case.
Examples from other countries
For instance, there is a key difference between the capacity of the UK centre to challenge policies and policy advice from departments as compared to other countries we studied. Civil service policy advisers at the Prime Minister’s Department in Australia, the Privy Council Office in Canada and the Chancellery in Germany provide advice which is critical and independent of departments. We found that the UK has a much more limited capacity in this area. Though comparisons are difficult, we estimate that there are around 10 times more policy advisers supporting the Canadian leader than the UK Prime Minister, even with the new Policy and Implementation Unit.
In the UK, we tend to worry that such support will lead to the centre gaining too much power and initiating its own policies. However with one exception, we found that the presence of direct civil service policy support to the Prime Minister does not lead to an ability to create new policies independent of departments. The important point is that, as one interviewee told us, it provides the vital contestability function of ensuring that someone other than the Prime Minister or the department has spent time analysing the merits of a proposal, a source of quality control which our recent policy making report suggested was lacking in the UK.
Lessons for the UK
Simply put: a smaller amount of support means denying the UK Prime Minister the advice which other leaders benefit from. Perhaps, we should turn the debate around, and instead of worrying about increasing his or her power ask ‘what makes a Prime Minister (and his or her government) most effective?’