02 June 2011

One of the constitutional innovations under Prime Minister Brown was a new sort of Cabinet Committee – the National Economic Council. In an article for Political Quarterly (PDF, 76kb) former Brown adviser Dan Corry argues that this was effective in getting Whitehall into action on the recession.

The National Economic Committee (NEC) was an 'Economic War Council' to drive the government response to the recession. This was a different sort of cabinet committee, that:

  • met weekly (twice weekly at the start)
  • was chaired by the PM and met in the famous COBRA crisis room –  to reinforce the message this was not business as usual
  • had a wide membership of involved departments and key expert business ministers – but with a strict no substitutes rule.

But what is really interesting about the NEC is its underpinning structure. The committee had:

  • a strong, activist secretariat – with Treasury people reporting to their permanent secretary as well
  • weekly supporting meetings of permanent secretaries of member departments
  • weekly supporting meetings of special advisers chaired by Dan Corry
  • a central commissioning process - involving the NEC secretariat, the Number 10 permanent secretary and relevant private secretary, and Dan Corry as Policy Unit member.

The first and last were “forcing mechanisms” to get collective action on a “realistic but pacey timetable” and to get departments to go beyond their standard departmental positions.  The others were “flanking mechanisms” to keep everyone on board.

Successes

The NEC established itself as the decision making forum and oversaw a lot of activity to respond to the recession. Corry’s verdict is that it was “in any terms a success.”

The PM’s engagement and senior attendance meant that departments – both officials and ministers – wanted to produce good work. It broke down barriers (not least the Treasury’s reluctance to engage in any collective discussion of economic policy and prospects), overcame silos and delivered collective buy-in.

Problems

But it had problems too.  Dan’s article lists five:

  • What the Treasury would allow to be discussed – it was ever keen to preserve its monopoly on fiscal, macro and tax policy – and differences over bank lending. The NEC became a place for departments to launch spending bids
  • Ministers’ preference for discussing presentation rather than policy – this was overcome by establishing a dedicated Mandelson subcommittee
  • Time – especially when issues were being debated rather than decisions made
  • Delivery – until the cavalry of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit were brought in (but even so, still a problem)
  • The excluded – some important departments were excluded from formal membership and had to be brought in ad-hoc.

Exception – or new model?

Was the NEC an innovation for the time that could not last – or is it a new model for driving from the centre?

What it shows is the potential for breaking down silos through an activist secretariat, a strong Prime Ministerial push and a very senior collective underpinning. More collective government is possible.  And, from my experience, ministers on the NEC found it rewardingly different from standard cabinet committees (not least because papers for the NEC always came round so late it was impossible for departments to brief on them).

As we report in One Year On, the Coalition has created a mechanism for more powerful collective action on the national security side, but reduced the capacity to use the centre to drive cross-departmental solutions on the domestic side.  It may not need a NEC.  But it is an interesting model of how Cabinet government can be done differently and, for a short time at least, more effectively.