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The Special Ones: Leading prime ministerial units in government

Wednesday 5 November 2014, 12:30

Should anyone in the audience for this event ever be asked to lead a prime ministerial unit, they will have a well-stocked toolbox to draw from, after a fascinating discussion by our three panellists: Louise Casey, head of the Troubled Families programme, David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, and Jon Bright, former deputy director of the Social Exclusion Unit.

Each had unique stories and perspectives. Louise Casey told us about arriving in government, her ‘heart on her sleeve’, determined to eliminate rough sleeping entirely, and her surprise when a protective civil servant wrote a submission on her second day, advising that she would not meet the prime minister’s (significantly more modest) target. David Halpern advised that successful special units need APPLES: Administrative and Political Support; People; Location; Experimentation and Scholarship.

But at the same time, there was a clear set of priorities which ran through all of their advice.


The physical location of your special unit matters. David Halpern said that the business of government is done in building networks, in informal meetings and through bumping into people around Whitehall, not least in the lobby of Number 10. To do these things, you need to be physically close to the people who can help you get things done.

At the same time, it’s not always best to be based at the Cabinet Office or Number 10. It’s better to have strong backing and resources from a department, than to be orphaned at the centre.


Louise Casey spoke emphatically about the importance of her team: she has a core of people many of whom have been with her for 15 years. Her ideal people have ‘charm and a little bit of menace’ in order to get things done and win the respect of those they need to work with. All panellists recommended a mixed team: people with outside knowledge and approaches working alongside insiders who understand how to make the Whitehall machine work.

But, warned Louise Casey, special unit leaders should avoid becoming ‘talking heads’: they should limit their public statements to the topics they are paid to work on, and resist the ‘seductive’ temptation of the media.

Clarity of purpose

The panellists agreed that having clarity of purpose – knowing what you are doing and why – is useful internally and externally. Belief in that cause helps too: Louise Casey said that ‘the cause’ is what will keep you going at difficult times.

Political support

David Halpern noted that there was a ‘Wizard of Oz’ aspect to the Prime Minister’s power, which limited the power and resources available to prime ministerial units. It is important, then, that new units secure sufficient resources – especially money – early on, while prime ministerial support is strongest.

At the same time, having the backing of the Prime Minister gives you authority, but Jon Bright also noted that the support of the Treasury was important – again, especially where getting money was concerned. The Social Exclusion Unit benefited from having both a supportive Prime Minister and a supportive Chancellor.

The panellists suggested that a really successful special unit will manage to gain cross-party support for its work. Jon Bright said that this will allow you to keep making progress over the long term. Louise Casey agreed that special units should try to side-step party politics, and that convincing people from across the political spectrum that they are doing the right thing is essential for ensuring long-term progress.


Louise Casey said that the expectations of new special unit leaders should be managed. They may feel personally anointed by the PM, but then find that they are given few resources when they arrive. At the office of one newly-appointed tsar, she found no printer, and no carpet: ‘not a great start’.

The political nature of special units can be limiting: David Halpern said that they were sometimes set up to show that something was being done, with little thought or interest in the resources that would be needed to help the unit achieve their aims. Early wins – with demonstrable outcomes – can garner political support and resources. For example, the Behavioural Insight Team was established with specific objectives to achieve to ensure that it only continued to exist if it had demonstrated its worth.

And finally….

All special units must come to an end. Louise Casey knew that the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit was done when ASBOs were mentioned on Eastenders, while the Behavioural Insights Unit had a sunset clause from the beginning. The Unit has now been spun out into a separate ‘social purpose company’, offering services to organisations and governments around the world.

Everyone agreed with Jon Bright that the real goal of a special unit should be to ‘catalyse change in departments’, and to ‘bend’ mainstream government activity. Now Louise Casey thinks about ‘mainstreaming’ from very early on in a new project. Special units, she said, are not ‘special’: they’re part of the Civil Service, and just another way of getting things done.

But the end doesn’t have to be the end. Louise Casey – drawing on her own extensive experience – said that if your unit delivers, you might get asked what you want to tackle next: and given the resources you want to do it. There’s no rest for the ‘special’ in government.