Successive governments appear to find it difficult to organise the centre of government in a way which meets their needs. The last two prime ministers have deliberately sought to change the way Number 10 operated from their predecessor’s model – but then had to change again as events revealed that their new structures were inadequate.

Institutional memory is embedded in just a few long-serving civil servants, and those coming into government from outside draw on imperfect views of what happened. People try to model the centre on what they knew last time their party was in government, when government has moved on – or react against what their predecessors did. Incoming prime ministers have proved reluctant to prepare and can be resistant to advice. While in post, prime ministers' priorities and political circumstances change – and the centre needs to be ready to respond to those changes.

Our research draws on insights from those who have worked inside the centre of government and makes recommendations that will help prime ministers and the Civil Service function more effectively at the centre.

Support to the Prime Minister

Our main report, Centre Forwardwas published in mid-2014 and provides detailed insight into the inner workings of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office and how the prime minister could be better supported in their role as head of government.

Our analysis makes clear that there needs to be a stronger core offer to prime ministers, and that the Cabinet Secretary is responsible for making sure this is available. The prime minister should be able to call on a number of essential capacities, such as:

  • capacity to understand and shape what government is doing and drive forward their own ideas with an effective private office and policy unit;
  • capacity for more ‘positive’ co-ordination by the Cabinet Office with well-resourced secretariats able to quality assure the proposals coming forward and enable the prime minister to challenge proposals effectively;
  • capacity for longer-term policy development to deal with cross-cutting, complex and less time-bound policy issues. This may or may not take the form of a dedicated unit, but the centre needs to have the ability to mobilise the needed skills and expertise when issues emerge.

This could include building in:

  • capacity to support task forces or reviews capacity for progress chasing but also implementation support on major projects and government priority programmes with the requisite skills and experience to add value to departmental action;
  • capacity to establish effective mechanisms rapidly to ‘incubate’ and catalyse change on prime ministerial priorities, especially through dedicated units, and to learn lessons from the past experience of those units;
  • capacity to plan and co-ordinate longer-term communications and external engagement to answer for government across the whole range of business.

The Prime Minister could continue to get day-to-day support from his official support staff and closest political advisers based in Number 10. But a ‘core offer’ along the lines we argue for would provide the stronger, more stable, and more professional capacity required to help the Prime Minister bridge from Number 10 to the wider government machine.

This report built on the earlier 2011 Institute for Government working paper Supporting Heads of Government, which compared support to heads of government across six countries and puts the UK in international perspective.

Prime ministerial 'special units'

Successive prime ministers have used central or special units to pursue their priorities but there is no process in place for capturing lessons on when and how to set up these units, or how to make them work.

We drew on the experiences of those who have run or worked in special units to distil seven key pieces of advice on how to make a unit work in our report, The Special Ones: How to make central government units work.

We also hosted a panel discussion in November 2014 with several current and former unit heads Louise Casey, David Halpern and Jon Bright who discussed lessons they learned about how to make a success of a prime ministerial unit.

National security co-ordination

In Centre Forward, we identified the post-2010 National Security Council (NSC) as an example of how the Prime Minister can create additional capacity to take forward government priorities through an enhanced cabinet committee and strong secretariat. Our case study, The National Security Council: National security at the centre of governmentplaces the NSC in historical perspective and explores how different the NSC is from the recent history of national security co-ordination.

This report forms part of the Contemporary History of Whitehall project, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded collaboration between the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Institute for Government.

Centres of government and implementation

The Institute for Government partnered with the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre to look at how heads of government and their immediate support systems can effectively turn election pledges and policy proposals into real changes on the ground.

This report, International Delivery, identifies global trends in how government heads are supported in delivering their agenda. It connects to the Institute's other work on improving policy implementation.

Project contacts

Senior Fellow