Whitehall Monitor 2021 reveals the way the pandemic has changed how the government takes decisions, spends money and makes policy.
The last year saw a drop in the government’s transparency on its spending, only a small proportions of Covid contracts awarded on a competitive basis, and many policy U-turns. And 2020 also saw the highest number of ‘ministerial directions’ – formal instructions for civil servants to continue with a policy despite their concerns about value for money or feasibility – for decades. The business secretary alone issued seven directions for pandemic-support policies, many of which, including the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and Bounce Back loans, have proved to be poorly targeted and costly.
Government contracts have been awarded at high speed. Only 1% of the £17.3bn spent on Covid contracts has been awarded through competitive tendering, and 61% awarded with no competition at all. The government has an even worse record on transparency than its recent predecessors: only 16% of departmental information releases on spending over £25,000 were published on time in 2020, down from to 38% in 2014.
The civil service continued to grow last year, with almost 10,000 civil servants joining government between December 2019 and September 2020 – meaning nearly half of the coalition government’s staff cuts in the wake of the financial crisis have now been reversed. Thousands of officials rapidly moved from other areas of work, including Brexit preparations, to work on the Covid crisis.
Johnson has suffered fewer cabinet-level resignations than Theresa May – no cabinet ministers resigned in 2020 since Sajid Javid quit as chancellor in February. But more junior ministers (10) have resigned than at the same point in May’s premiership (7), and the PM has drawn criticism for keeping several ministers – notably Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson – in post despite policy failures and, in Patel’s case, having been judged by the prime minister’s independent adviser to break the Ministerial Code.
This is the eighth edition of Whitehall Monitor, which each year gathers and analyses data on the UK government to assess its performance.