Working to make government more effective


The challenges of the coming decades can only be tackled with a smarter centre

The centre of government is not capable of meeting the challenges faced by the UK today.

Hannah White Sir Anthony Seldon
The Cabinet Office
The Institute's recommendations include the merging of the Cabinet Office with No.10 to create a new, better coordinated Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Commission on the Centre of Government has published its final report. Dr Hannah White and Sir Anthony Seldon set out why reform is so important and what needs to change

Whether led by Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer, whichever government is formed after the forthcoming election will face an acute set of policy challenges: stagnant economic growth, intractable regional inequalities, the generational task of building energy security and tackling climate change, optimising AI, chronic problems in public services, an ageing population and decaying infrastructure. 

We need a new way of governing from the centre

The centre of government needs to be up to the task of supporting the prime minister to tackle these problems. If that prime minister is Rishi Sunak, he will need to identify priorities to replace the ‘pledges’ that have shaped his agenda. If it is Keir Starmer who leads the next government, it is Labour’s five ‘missions’ that will need to be embedded.

Our proposals, published today, set out how this can be done. Take Starmer’s missions. They would form the core of a new set of priorities for government, overseen collectively by an executive committee. A new process aligned around the priorities would translate the missions into the budgets, policies and operations of Whitehall. A senior ‘first secretary of state’ would be responsible for overall delivery, working with lead secretaries of state for each part of the programme. And a new Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet would be designed to make change happen on cross-cutting and long-term priorities. 

The problems at the centre are acute

The core problem with the centre is that it fails to set and pursue an overall strategy for the government. It does not do enough to translate political ambitions into deliverable priorities and plans for government. The powerful Treasury fills the resulting vacuum. As a result, the centre does not plan for the long-term and cross-cutting policy problems that most urgently need to be tackled.

The cabinet is constitutionally and politically still important but its size means that it has long since ceased to be an effective strategic decision making body. No.10 and the Cabinet Office suffer from confused remits and are too weak to help the prime minister set direction. The centre is too inward looking, too closed to outside expertise. Its weakness generates an instinct to centralise and micromanage, rather than set direction and then get out the way of delivery. Units in No.10 come and go capriciously.

The civil service leadership lacks authority and co-ordinating power at the centre. The cabinet secretary and head of the civil service’s job has become impossible – with radically different skills sets required for each role – so the half-a-million civil servants do without the dedicated leadership the institution needs.

Seven proposals for change

We make seven key recommendations for change to create a stronger, more strategic centre of government.

  1. The government should agree its priorities at the start of a parliament and announce them as part of a modernised King’s Speech. These should be set out in a set of Priorities for Government defined by measurable outcomes and underpinned by a set of guiding principles.
  2. The prime minister should appoint an Executive Cabinet Committee made up of a few key ministers. It would develop the Priorities for Government, make key strategic decisions such as on the government’s fiscal rules, spending envelopes and financial allocations. This would formalise what has often happened on an ad hoc basis.
  3. The prime minister should appoint a new, senior first secretary of state with responsibility for delivering the government’s priorities and ministerial responsibility for the civil service. They would sit on the Executive Committee and work closely with the chancellor, freeing up the prime minister to take a strategic, longer-term view.
  4. The Cabinet Office and No.10 should be restructured into a Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and a separate Department for the Civil Service (DCS). This would increase the strategic support available to the prime minister, including with increased economic expertise, a stronger and more coherent data and analytical capability and deeper delivery experience. And it gives the civil service leadership the powers and levers it needs to properly lead the institution.
  5. There should be a new statute for the civil service and a Civil Service Board to hold its leadership accountable for reform priorities. This clarifies civil service powers and accountability, improves the outside scrutiny of the civil service and strengthens the core relationship between civil servants and ministers.
  6. The roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service should be filled by separate individuals. So that both critical roles can receive the dedicated attention they deserve and be fulfilled by people with the skill sets they require.
  7. The government’s priorities should be fully reflected in a new, shared strategy, budget and performance management process owned collectively at the centre of government. To ensure the Priorities for Government are translated into the strategy, budgets and plans across Whitehall. And to do so by more collective decision making across the centre of government, rooted in the Executive Committee and supported by the DPMC, DCS and the Treasury.

A stronger centre is needed to meet the long-term and cross-cutting challenges of the coming decades

Institutional and procedural reform can seem abstract and unrelated to the problems of the day. But the failings of the centre ripple out across government and contribute to the policy failures that affect everybody’s lives.

A stronger centre would mean a government could, for example, properly focus on preventative healthcare. It could be planned and budgeted for between the various departments who have an interest. A government could develop a single strategy, with an aligned budget and a series of collectively owned programmes and projects, with measurable outcomes to judge progress.

If levelling up was a priority, hitherto patchy work could be defined and executed through our recommended strategy and budget process, rather than tentatively and after-the-fact as it has been so far. There would be a proper forum in which to define the policy and to give the prime minister oversight of its development and progress on milestones.

And the shocks that hit government would be better managed too. Brexit needed – and still needs – stronger co-ordination from the centre. We saw during the Covid pandemic that the early chaotic response improved once a smaller powerful taskforce took charge, and improved the data flows and decision-making processes at the centre.

British governments have laboured for too long trying to manage a highly centralised country with weak centre. Policies, decisions and operational delivery have been the poorer because of it. It will be essential to the success of everything else they do that whoever leads the next government fixes this problem.

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