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Licence to lead: lessons for public bodies from the pandemic response in health

Government should trust public bodies to lead in crises.

Leadership in a crisis like the pandemic must come from bodies across the public sector, not just from the centre of government. This requires ministers doing more to understand how arm’s-length bodies (ALBs) operate and giving them the authority to work with confidence – which was not the case with Public Health England in 2020. It also means ALBs themselves earning ministerial confidence.

This report explores how politicians, civil servants and public body leaders worked together under pressure during the pandemic, and says their relationship sometimes suffered from unclear accountability, a blame culture and poor cross-government communication.

Based on interviews with senior civil servants, public body leaders and others close to government’s decision making, the report finds that the centre of government was often unaware of how public bodies worked. It sets out a series of recommendations to allow credible specialist organisations to lead in their spheres of expertise – rather than letting responsibilities fall between the cracks.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Improve accountability: the Cabinet Office should work with public bodies and their sponsor departments in normal times to define how public bodies would work to a No.10, Treasury or Cabinet Office agenda in a crisis.
  • Avoid a blame culture: ministers should meet leaders of public bodies regularly to build the trusting relationships that are needed when a crisis occurs.
  • Collaborate on contingency planning: public bodies should be directly engaged in central contingency planning and crisis preparation to ensure responsibilities are clearly defined.
  • Encourage the independent voice of public bodies: leaders of public bodies should speak independently in public on behalf of their organisations on matters of fact and expert interpretation, even where this may be inconvenient to ministers.
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