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Explainer

Cabinet Office

The Cabinet Office forms part of the centre of government, alongside 10 Downing Street and the Treasury. But what does it do?

Cabinet Office sign
The Cabinet Office's head office is at 70 Whitehall, next door to Downing Street.

What is the Cabinet Office?

The Cabinet Office forms part of the centre of government, alongside 10 Downing Street and the Treasury. Its head office is at 70 Whitehall, next door to Downing Street. There are also Cabinet Office teams based across Westminster, with some elsewhere in London and around the country.  

The Cabinet Office was established in 1916, when the cabinet secretariat was created. Its core function reflects those origins: supporting the prime minister and the cabinet in co-ordinating and agreeing collective policy decisions and the running of cabinet and cabinet committee meetings. It now plays a role in implementing high priority policies, especially ones spanning multiple departments, and it also houses many of the government’s corporate teams working on civil service reform, human resources and various corporate functions. Since 1957, intelligence and national security functions have sat in the Cabinet Office.  

The Cabinet Office’s core role – hosting the cabinet secretariat – has remained constant, but successive prime ministers have changed its structure to suit their policy priorities, leadership style and political context, often bringing in new units or renaming existing ones. This makes for a complicated and constantly changing organisation, in which it can be difficult to trace lines of accountability or see where decisions are made.

Who is in charge of the Cabinet Office?

The prime minister, is the highest-ranking minister within the Cabinet Office, and is ultimately responsible for its activity. A minister for the Cabinet Office oversees the department.

The minister for the Cabinet Office’s power depends on what responsibilities the prime minister allows them to cover and their standing within the party and in cabinet. In recent years it has been held by senior politicians. Some, such as David Lidington and Damian Green, were recognised as de facto deputies to the prime minister.

The current minister for the Cabinet Office is Michael Gove, who has also taken on responsibility for reforming the department and the civil service more widely. He is also responsible for Brexit preparation and readiness, constitutional reform and the government’s approach to devolution and the union.

Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010 to 2015, was similarly responsible for overseeing civil service reform, setting up the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group in 2010.

Ministers of the Cabinet Office often hold this post alongside other positions – Michael Gove, Ed Miliband (2007-2008) and David Lidington (2018-19) simultaneously held the role of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The minister of the Cabinet Office post has also been held alongside the role of paymaster general – for example Ben Gummer (2016-2017) and the first secretary of state, Damian Green (2017). In the coalition government the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, was based in the Cabinet Office. He was responsible for the constitution but did not lead on other departmental issues, though as deputy and leader of the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government his remit also strayed across government.

Who are the most senior civil servants in the department?

The civil servants who lead the administrative side of the Cabinet Office are the most senior in the civil service, including the cabinet secretary and the chief operating officer for the civil service. The cabinet secretary is responsible for leading the cabinet secretariats, advising the prime minister on major government issues and organising meetings and advising the chairs of Cabinet and cabinet committees. Simon Case was appointed as cabinet secretary in September 2020.

Alex Chisholm is the government’s chief operating officer and permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office. His role focuses on the running of the whole of the department, especially its function as the corporate centre of the civil service. Chisholm leads on the reform of the civil service and its cross-cutting corporate functions like project management, commercial services, finance and communications.

Which other ministers are in the Cabinet Office?

Other ministers based in the Cabinet Office reflect its variety of functions. Some ministers may be given the task of looking at a specific priority area represented in the Cabinet Office. There are ministers who work on policy, including:

  • Chloe Smith, minister of state (constitutional affairs)
  • Lord Agnew, minister of state (civil service)
  • Lord True, minister of state (Brexit preparedness and the constitution)
  • Johnny Mercer, minister for defence people and veterans
  • Julia Lopez, parliamentary secretary (supporting ministers’ policy agenda)

Other ministers are central to the running of the government and are based in the Cabinet Office because their offices do not fit neatly in any other department. These ministers include:

  • Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons
  • Baroness Evans, leader of the House of Lords
  • Penny Mordaunt, paymaster general

There are ministers who have a role relating to a political party – parliamentary whips and the party chairman, who currently include:

  • Amanda Milling, minister without portfolio (the Conservative Party chairman)
  • Mark Spencer, chief whip (responsible for leading the whips and whipping system)

Lord (David) Frost is not a minister but is the chief negotiator with the EU, and the appointed national security adviser, with special ambassadorial status.

How does the Cabinet Office work with Number 10?

Number 10 is technically part of the Cabinet Office, but in practice the two are organisationally distinct. Number 10 supports the prime minister in his or her duties as the head of the government, head of the party and in their diplomatic and parliamentary role. It is staffed by permanent civil servants and special advisers, and includes the prime minister’s private office, a policy unit, and the logistical and practical teams to run the prime minister’s life. Other support functions, like delivery or strategy units, have moved backwards and forwards between Number 10 and the Cabinet Office over the years.

There is a “link door” between the back of 70 Whitehall and 10 Downing Street and access passes are highly prized by Cabinet Office staff.

What are the Cabinet Office’s different functions?

  1. Collective decision making and dispute resolution

The primary role of the Cabinet Office is to facilitate collective decision making – whether within the cabinet or cabinet committees. These meetings resolve disputes between departments, build consensus on policies and help to bind ministers into the convention of collective responsibility. This core function is organised by the Cabinet Secretariat, which supports the prime minister and other committee chairs.

The secretariat will produce an agenda for the meetings, write minutes and make sure actions are noted and acted on. Cabinet Office officials also help to broker decisions, anticipating disagreements and working with senior ministers on solutions to the government’s significant and cross-cutting policy issues.

Often, there are multiple secretariats each serving the different chairs of the cabinet committees. Until 2016 the major secretariats included:

  • Economic and Domestic Secretariat (including the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Secretariat, the main team supporting the leaders of the House of Commons and Lords)
  • National Security Secretariat and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat
  • European and Global Issues Secretariat

The prime minister can adapt these secretariats. Theresa May disbanded the European and Global Issues Secretariat and folded it into the Department for Exiting the European Union. The current government has not published information on its secretariats, but it is reported that Boris Johnson has consolidated some of the secretariats, though the national security and civil contingencies secretariats are still in existence.

Separate from the Cabinet Office secretariats is the Propriety and Ethics team. They support the prime minister and cabinet secretary when they need to take decisions about complaints or concerns about individuals’ behaviour under the Ministerial or Civil Service codes.

  1. Policy delivery

The Cabinet Office has at times housed units focused on the delivery of high profile government policies and projects.

In 2001, the New Labour government created a delivery unit specifically to work on policy delivery, and most prime ministers since have used a team in No10 or the Cabinet Office to keep a central function to advise them on the implementation of government policies.

  1. Strategy and policy development

The majority of government policy work happens within individual departments. This can make co-ordination and collaboration between departments difficult. Prime ministers have dealt with this by setting up units in the centre of government which focus on long term strategy or which undertake long term policy development. These have sometimes sat in the Cabinet Office or in Number 10. They are usually made up of a mix of civil servants and special advisers, and can use outside expertise. Bodies which aim to bring new research or ways of working to bear on policy problems are also involved, with David Cameron setting up the Behavioural Insights Team.

The Cabinet Office is often a home for teams working on specific time-limited issues that directly reflect the prime minister’s priorities. For example, Tony Blair established the Social Exclusion Unit and Theresa May set up the Race Disparity Unit.

There are also a number of standing policy teams that reflect current or historical ministerial interests. The largest of these is the Constitution Group that moved into the Cabinet Office from the Ministry of Justice when Nick Clegg became deputy prime minister.

  1. Corporate functions

The Cabinet Office is also a corporate centre for the civil service: its cross-cutting functions, management and reform.

Corporate teams that are housed in the Cabinet Office include:

  • the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which brings together project management expertise to support the delivery of some of government’s major projects.
  • the Crown Commercial Service, which leads on procurement policy and supports the procurement of goods and services for the civil service and wider public sector.
  • the Civil Service Commission, which regulates recruitment and ensures appointments are made on merit.
  • the Government Digital Service, which supports the government’s programme of digital transformation and standardisation, setting up ‘common components’ such as Notify and Verify which can be used across government organisations.
  • functions like civil service human resources, where cross-cutting matters are led from the Cabinet Office, but have been largely managed within individual departments.

The government announced in July 2020 that all government communications would be streamlined and centrally managed from the Cabinet Office. This government has decided to use the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate its central communications strategy.

  1. Intelligence and Security

Since 1957, the Cabinet Office has housed the Joint Intelligence Committee and Assessments Staff. These analyse and consolidate intelligence findings from across the various agencies that undertake intelligence analysis. From the early 2000s the Cabinet Office has also had some formal responsibility for national security. Since 2010 it has housed the National Security Secretariat, which supports the National Security Council.  

  1. Emergency Response

The structures through which the government responds to serious crises are based in the Cabinet Office. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) sits within the Cabinet Office. During a significant crisis the CCS supports the Civil Contingencies Committee (COBR) and is responsible for co-ordinating the departments and agencies that are involved in the response.

CCS ensures that decision makers have access to comprehensive, accurate and up to date information. This includes advice fed in by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). CCS and SAGE have been central to the government’s decision making and response to the coronavirus pandemic, especially during the first stages of the pandemic.

 
Department
Cabinet Office
Publisher
Institute for Government

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