The final part of this report assesses how well the civil service fulfilled its key roles and responsibilities in 2022, and how it could improve its performance in the future. It covers making and implementing policy, managing tight budgets, delivering large projects, working and communicating transparently and, lastly, leading an engaged, motivated workforce.
Making and implementing policy
Ministers are responsible for deciding policy but rely on – and should engage with – good advice from civil servants
The relationship between ministers and civil servants, how responsibilities are divided and accountability is practised, is too ambiguous. Institute for Government research in 2022 assessed the ways this confusion is making government less effective. 178 Thomas A, Clyne R, Bishop M and Lilly A, A new statutory role for the civil service, Institute for Government, 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/statutory-role-civil-service But in broad terms, ministers are the ones with a democratic mandate and so are responsible for making policy decisions. Meanwhile, civil servants are responsible for advising ministers on those decisions and helping government to implement policy and administer services.
To make good policy decisions, ministers require good advice from their officials. This is frequently the case, and departments do often produce policies that improve people’s lives. But the experience of government in 2022 demonstrated the long- standing problems with Whitehall policy making (more on which below).
The past year also demonstrated the risks of what can happen when the ministerial– official relationship at the heart of policy making breaks down. Nothing made this more clear than the lead-up to and delivery of the disastrous ‘mini-budget’ by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng in September 2022.
The Treasury permanent secretary, Sir Tom Scholar, who had been in post since 2016, was sacked immediately after Truss and Kwarteng took office. This prevented him from advising ministers on how best to implement their risky proposals 179 Pope T, ‘Kwasi Kwarteng’s new era of economic policy is a major gamble’, blog, Institute for Government, 23 September 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/kwasi-kwartengs-new-era-economic-policy-major-gamble (and, ironically, deprived them of his expertise in managing economic crises in the aftermath). In addition to that, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s independent forecaster, was sidelined in the preparations for the budget.
It is ministers’ responsibility to set policy, even if officials advise against certain decisions. But the approach taken in the mini-budget to ignore official advice and remove any barrier that might adhere to perceived Treasury ‘orthodoxy’ contributed to the undermining of the UK’s fiscal credibility in response to the statement, which saw the pound fall, gilt yields soar and the Bank of England intervene to protect pension funds. 180 Pope T, ‘Kwarteng and Truss show the perils of disregarding economic institutions’, blog, Institute for Government, 29 September 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/kwarteng-truss-economic-institutions There are ways in which the chancellor could have challenged institutional ‘orthodoxy’ while engaging with, and taking account of, officials’ advice, even where it ran counter to his view. Ensuring the relationship between ministers and officials works, even and especially when ministers do not ultimately agree with officials’ conclusions, is an important part of good policy making. 2022 should serve as a warning of the risks of letting that relationship slide.
The civil service should be responsible for providing long-term policy advice
Though much of the disruption of the past six years has been brought about by the twin shocks of Brexit and the pandemic, many of the major problems the UK faces are chronic and long term. The challenge of providing for an ageing society with increasing demand for health and social care, tackling low productivity outside London and the South East, and addressing regional inequality or the climate crisis all predate both. Successive governments’ failure to address such problems was shown again in 2022.
The government’s work towards net zero may prove to be one of the few examples of effective long-term policy development, helped by innovative legislation that locked in a system of regular advice and monitoring, strengthening scrutiny and making the cost of inaction higher, but still ultimately under parliamentary oversight. This helped to ensure policy development could look beyond the parliamentary cycle and survive successive governments. And later in 2022, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, helped to improve long-term policy making in the NHS by announcing a new, “independently verified” forecast of workforce needs to inform planning. 181 Mitchell G, ‘Hunt: NHS will get ‘independently verified’ workforce plan’, Nursing Times, 18 November 2022, www.nursingtimes.net/news/workforce/hunt-nhs-will-get-independently-verified-workforce-plan-18-11-2022
But such cases of long-term policy making are too rare. Ministers and officials lack incentives to take a long-term view. Personnel turnover is a problem on both sides of the relationship – in the UK ministers in particular stay in post for less time than their counterparts in many other countries. 182 Sasse T, Durrant T, Norris E and Zodgekar K, Government reshuffles: The case for keeping ministers in post longer, Institute for Government, 2020, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/government-reshuffles- keeping-ministers-post-longer ‘Permanent civil servants’ are supposed to provide more continuity but also move roles too frequently, often between departments with markedly different briefs. As covered in Part 1, 2022 saw a peak of 13.6% of civil servants either moving between departments or leaving the civil service.
Churn is a problem for institutional memory and departmental knowledge management, and it incentivises both ministers and officials to focus on work that might have some effect in the short time they are likely to be in post, rather than what would be most beneficial in years to come. The preference for immediate outcomes rather than lasting change is compounded for ministers by the four- to five-year cycle of parliamentary terms.
The resulting difficulties to tackle long-term policy problems were demonstrated
clearly within just the last three months of 2022:
- In October the then local government minister, Paul Scully, announced that the ‘fair funding review’ – a 2016 initiative intended to improve the allocation of resources to local authorities – would again be delayed, not to be completed during this spending review period. 183 Kenyon M and Hill J, ‘Government delays fair funding review’, Local Government Chronicle, 5 October 2022, www.lgcplus.com/finance/government-delays-fair-funding-review-05-10-2022
- In November’s autumn statement Jeremy Hunt announced that long-planned reforms to social care charging, including a cap on costs, would once again be delayed for two years from 2023 to 2025 as a result of the country’s weaker fiscal outlook. 184 Foster D, Proposed adult social care charging reforms (including cap on care costs), Research Briefing, House of Commons Library, 22 November 2022, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9315
- In December the housing secretary, Michael Gove, watered down the target to build 300,000 houses per year in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in the face of opposition from Conservative MPs, instead making it an “advisory… starting point”. 185 Scott J, ‘Michael Gove waters down house building target after Tory MP backlash’, Sky News, 6 December 2022,https://news.sky.com/story/michael-gove-to-drop-house-building-target-after-tory-mp-backlash-12762321
It is true that policy making has been disrupted by global events, such as higher-than- expected inflation and war in Ukraine. But none of these events were wholly unforeseeable. Even if their confluence is clearly difficult, long-term policy making must mitigate for wider economic circumstances or shifts in a government’s focus.
It is clearer than ever that civil servants must help ministers ensure they are able to take a long-term view. This means giving the civil service its own responsibility for the long-term capability of government and for maintaining a long-term perspective on key policy issues, incorporating that evidence into the advice given to ministers. As set out above, the Institute argues that the government can give the civil service this stewardship responsibility by putting the civil service on a new statutory footing. 186 Thomas A, Clyne R, Bishop M and Lilly A, A new statutory role for the civil service, Institute for Government, 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/statutory-role-civil-service
This would mean the civil service, and the head of the civil service specifically, ensuring more evidence is available and given to ministers on the long-term implications of policy. The UK can learn in this approach from that taken by the New Zealand government as part of its public service reforms. Departmental chief executives, the equivalent of the UK’s permanent secretaries, have a statutory duty to publish long-term insights briefings to inform policy making. 187 Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand Government, ‘Long term insights briefings’, https://dpmc.govt.nz/our-programmes/policy-project/long-term-insights-briefings
More evidence, advice and analysis should be published
There is a strong case for regularly publishing more civil service policy advice, analysis and evidence during and after the policy making process. Previous Institute for Government research has found that opening the policy making process up to greater external input and scrutiny can prove a key factor in successful policies. 188 Rutter J, Sims S and Marshall E, The ‘S’ Factors: Lessons from IfG’s policy success reunions, Institute for Government, 2012, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/s-factors
Knowing policy advice would be published would encourage officials to include a high standard of evidence and analysis, and would disincentivise civil servants from telling ministers what they think they want to hear. It would also encourage ministers to engage with official advice and evidence when making their decisions. It would open Whitehall policy making up to better scrutiny from parliament, the wider public sector and beyond. 189 Sasse T and Thomas A, Better policy making, 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/better-policy-making And it would encourage high-calibre external entrants to come into government, some of whom are currently dissuaded from doing so because they fear being forced to defend policies that disregard their recommendations, damaging their professional reputation. 190 Urban J and Thomas A, Opening up: How to strengthen the civil service through external recruitment, Institute for Government, 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/civil-service-external-recruitment
Ministers and senior officials should learn from other parts of government to identify how central government could publish more policy advice in the future. For example, reports for local government cabinet meetings are published ahead of public executive meetings, except in specific circumstances. These papers set out the analysis and business case for decisions before they are formally taken, and often feature named official authors with contact details. 191 Department for Communities and Local Government, Your council’s cabinet – going to its meetings, seeing how it works, 14 June 2013, www.gov.uk/government/publications/your-councils-cabinet-going-to-its-meetings-seeing-how-it-works Doing so does not prevent local government officers from providing councillors with private advice earlier in the decision making process, but does arguably improve the standard of analysis and evidence used. A similar approach could be taken in Whitehall departments and the UK cabinet.
The need to publish more policy advice and evidence was reiterated in 2022 in the criticism of the Home Office for its closed development of the controversial Rwanda asylum scheme 192 Clyne R, ‘The government’s Rwanda asylum seeker plan won’t work’, blog, Institute for Government, 14 April 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/governments-rwanda-asylum-seeker-plan-wont-work – during which it inadequately engaged with other departments, parts of the public sector or other stakeholders. The Home Office subsequently lost a court battle to prevent the publication of some of the evidence and analysis related to the scheme. 193 Dunton J, ‘Government loses secrecy bid over Rwanda policy documents’, Civil Service World, 18 August 2022, www.civilserviceworld.com/professions/article/rwanda-asylum-seeker-policy-government-loses-secrecy-over-documents-liz-truss
It was the lack of evidence to support ministers’ belief that the Rwanda scheme would deter asylum seekers from crossing the Channel in small boats that led the Home Office permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, to request a ministerial direction – a formal instruction from a minister to their permanent secretary to proceed with a spending proposal despite the latter’s objections – from the home secretary. He did so on the grounds that the civil service was unable to confirm the value for public money that would be achieved by the scheme, in the absence of such evidence. 194 Home Office, Letter from Matthew Rycroft to Rt Hon Priti Patel, 16 April 2022, www.gov.uk/government/ publications/migration-and-economic-development-partnership-ministerial-direction
Ministerial directions are not a sign that a policy has failed. They have been used in recent years in support of policies most would deem necessary, such as the energy price guarantee and energy bill relief scheme in 2022, or various aspects of government spending on coronavirus in 2020. 195 HM Treasury, ‘Ministerial Directions’, last updated 25 October 2022, www.gov.uk/government/collections/ministerial-directions But they are nevertheless a useful mechanism available to the civil service to identify when there is an absence of evidence in support of a particular aspect of a policy, as with the Rwanda scheme.
However, ministerial directions have never been used on the grounds of feasibility alone, and only rarely on the grounds of feasibility alongside other criteria. 196 Freeguard G, Davies O and Tingay P, ‘Ministerial directions’, explainer, Institute for Government, 24 August 2017, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/article/explainer/ministerial-directions Permanent secretaries could make more use of directions on the grounds of feasibility to identify cases where ministers’ policy decisions do not align with officials’ views of plausible implementation. Complementing the publication of more policy advice, this would allow officials to ensure their expertise regarding delivery is taken fully into account, improving Whitehall policy making.
The Institute also argued in A new statutory role for the civil service that the feasibility criterion could be expanded, in the context of the new civil service statute, to give permanent secretaries a means of requesting a direction when ministers’ instructions contradict officials’ ability to maintain the long-term capability of the civil service and government.
The civil service should make more concrete plans to embed effective models of policy making across government in 2023
The quality of civil service policy advice is affected by the methods used to design and decide policy. So it is important for the civil service to continue to experiment with different models for making policy, spreading and embedding those found to be effective. Doing so can help to incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences, and defend against the risks of ‘groupthink’. Examples include the use of multidisciplinary teams 197 Thomas A, Guerin B, Clyne R and Vira S, Finding the right skills for the civil service, Institute for Government, 2021, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/civil-service-skills, p. 5, p. 30. and ‘red teams’ 198 McCrae J and Rutter J, Behavioural Government: Using behavioural science to improve how governments make decisions, Institute for Government and the Behavioural Insights Team, 2018, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/report/behavioural-government, p. 12, p. 41. to stress test proposals, and using deliberative methods 199 Thomas A and Sasse T, Better policy making, Institute for Government, 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/better-policy-making, pp. 29–30. to involve the public in policy design and decision making – all of which the Institute for Government has argued that the civil service should deploy more frequently and comprehensively.
These methods are sometimes used in government already. For example, since 2014, Policy Lab has worked with almost every government department on more than 180 projects.* 200 Parker S, ‘Launching the new Policy Lab prospectus’, Policy Lab blog, 24 October 2022, https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2022/10/24/launching-the-new-policy-lab-prospectus In 2022 it published its first prospectus and innovation strategy, setting out plans to promote new experimental policy design methods across Whitehall. 201 Parker S, ‘Launching the new Policy Lab prospectus’, Policy Lab blog, 24 October 2022. 202 Sabherwal S and Sharma N, ‘Launching our experimental policy design methods’, Policy Lab blog, 18 May 2022, https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2022/05/18/launching-our-experimental-policy-design-methods
The Policy Profession Standards, used as the competency framework for policy professionals, now include references to the importance of multidisciplinary and multi-professional teams in ensuring diverse inputs in the process of designing policy, and of involving those affected by it. They also refer to formal, written consultations as just “part of a broader, richer process of public dialogue”, as well as testing and prototyping ideas, subjecting options to challenge, and the importance of mitigating bias or groupthink. 203 Policy Profession, ‘Policy profession standards: annex’, 10 November 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/policy-profession-standards
There are signs that these methods are being used more regularly in parts of the civil service. Multidisciplinary teams, for example, are used on a regular, if ad hoc, basis. In 2020, the cabinet secretary commented to Civil Service World that the pandemic had pushed the government to improve its use of red teams to challenge policy choices; 204 Smith B and Johnstone R, ‘”The complexity of the problem is the thing that first hit me”: cabinet secretary Simon Case on Covid, his return to No.10, and working with Dominic Cummings’, Civil Service World, 21 December 2020, www.civilserviceworld.com/in-depth/article/interview-cabinet-secretary-simon-case in 2021, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the Ministry of Defence published the third edition of its Red Teaming Handbook, 205 Ministry of Defence, ‘Red Teaming Handbook’, 20 October 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-guide-to-red-teaming while the defence secretary has also referred to red-teaming activities by a new body in the department. 206 House of Commons, Hansard, ‘Written questions’, 8 February 2021, https://questions-statements.parliament. uk/written-questions/detail/2021-02-03/148687
These developments are welcome, but momentum must be kept up across government if these efforts are going to translate into sustained changes to the way departments make policy on a day-to-day basis. High-level political and official advocacy will be essential if positive examples are to be built upon.
It was encouraging that the 2021 Declaration on Government Reform committed to improving the range of disciplines and backgrounds in teams that focus on more complex policy issues, as well as using ‘red teams’ and outside secondees to provide challenge in policy making, and considering ‘radical alternatives’. However, it was unfortunate these areas did not feature in the government’s planned actions to deliver the declaration in 2021 and since. This is a shame. The actions also included no mention of more closely involving citizens in decision making through deliberative methods, something the Institute has previously argued can both avoid a ‘tick box’ approach to consultation and enable citizens to shape and make policy more robust. 207 Thomas A and Sasse T, Better policy making, Institute for Government, 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/better-policy-making, pp. 29-30
Concrete plans are required for how these methods will be mainstreamed into regular departmental practices, and robustly upheld as indispensable elements of policy work. So to continue to improve the quality of its policy advice to ministers, the civil service should focus in 2023 on building on good practice highlighted by the likes of Policy Lab and the policy profession.
* Policy Lab is a dedicated team of officials that works with policy teams across the civil service to implement new policy making processes, aiming to embed evidence, participation and experimentation, while drawing on different perspectives.
The recent focus on evaluation is welcome and should now go further
The Declaration on Government Reform introduced a renewed focus on improving the evaluation of policy. It stated the government’s aim to improve performance included “modernising the operation of government, being clear-eyed about our priorities, and objective in our evaluation of what is and is not working”. 208 Cabinet Office, Declaration on Government Reform, 15 June 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/ declaration-on-government-reform/declaration-on-government-reform This translated in part into the creation of the Evaluation Task Force (ETF) the same year.
The ETF is a joint Treasury and Cabinet Office unit established to “put evaluation at the heart of government decisions”, which it seeks to achieve by working in three ways: 209 Evaluation Task Force, The Evaluation Task Force Strategy 2022–2025, 30 November 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-evaluation-task-force-strategy-2022-2025
- Embedding evaluation into decision making – such as by advising Treasury spending teams on what they should expect from departmental evaluations, setting expectations for the role of evaluations and evidence in outcome delivery plans,* and owning The Magenta Book. 210 HM Treasury and Evaluation Task Force, ‘The Magenta Book: HM Treasury guidance on what to consider when designing an evaluation’, last updated 1 April 2020, www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-magenta-book
- Supporting the delivery of priority evaluations – such as by directly helping departments with key evaluations in 10 agreed priority areas, 211 Evaluation Task Force, ‘Priority Areas for the Evaluation Task Force (SR21 Period)’, Gov.uk, 25 October 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/priority-areas-for-the-evaluation-task-force-sr21-period/priority- areas-for-the-evaluation-task-force-sr21-period managing the Evaluation Accelerator Fund, 212 Evaluation Task Force, ‘Evaluation Accelerator Fund’, Gov.uk, last updated 6 October 2022, www.gov.uk/ government/publications/evaluation-accelerator-fund and signposting to other relevant support such as the What Works Network for which the ETF is secretariat.
- Promoting the importance of evaluation across government – such as by collating best practice examples of evaluations 213 Evaluation Task Force, ‘Top Evaluations: Government’, Gov.uk Collection, last updated 8 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/collections/top-evaluations-government#full-publication-update-history and designing a new, public registry of evaluations due to be launched in 2024.
The ETF has made good progress. Its mix of promoting good practice, requiring transparency from other parts of government and providing direct support for key priorities is the right approach. But that is yet to lead to a step-change in the quality or prevalence of evaluation in government. As the ETF’s strategy explains, “high quality evaluation of government policies is still the exception rather than the rule” – only around half of core Whitehall departments (9 of 16) have published an evaluation strategy. 214 Evaluation Task Force, ‘Evaluation Strategies from UK government departments’, Gov.uk Collection, last updated 18 November 2022, www.gov.uk/government/collections/evaluation-strategies-from-uk-government-departments
The ETF has targets that, by 2025, every department will have published an evaluation strategy; every major project and ETF-priority project will have robust evaluation plans; the public registry of evaluations will have launched; and 90% of departments will be compliant with the Treasury’s evaluation settlement conditions allocated at spending reviews. 215 Evaluation Task Force, The Evaluation Task Force Strategy 2022–2025, 30 November 2022. These are laudable aims but departments will need to push for better evaluations and greater transparency if they are to be achieved.
This will require sustained political, administrative and financial support. Ministers at the centre of government and in departments will need to make clear that improving evaluation of policy and spending remains a priority. This must filter through to departments such that senior officials expect the approval of submissions and spending proposals to depend on the inclusion of effective evaluation plans. The former national ‘What Works’ adviser, David Halpern, recently asked whether the Treasury should make departments’ spending settlements conditional on the delivery of agreed evaluation plans, with the threat of reduced budgets for those that fail to do so. 216 ‘“What works” in government: 10 years of using evidence to make better policy and what comes next’, IfG event, 24 October 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/events/what-works-government-evidence-policy
Halpern also stressed the importance of external evaluation, arguing that this would improve if an independent body is given the ability to scrutinise public evaluations for each line of government spending agreed at spending reviews. To achieve this level of transparency, departments will need to publish full evaluation plans for each priority outcome in the public version of their next outcome delivery plans, which they did not for the first published round of ODPs.
And if the government is going to expect this improvement in evaluation from departments, the resource needs to be allocated to make it happen. This means long- term support for teams such as the ETF. But it also means R&D resource across departments to enable them to deliver their promised evaluations. During a time of fiscal constraint, such plans will be even more important to inform decision making and ensure that public funds are spent well.
* Outcome delivery plans (ODPs) are the government’s principal planning document for each department, in which priority outcomes and metrics are agreed, and through which progress is monitored. For further information on the government’s ODP framework in Part 3.
Managing tight budgets
Public spending will barely grow in most departments under current plans
It is a core responsibility of civil servants to manage and administer their department’s budgets in support of their ministers’ priorities. Departmental budgets are set through Treasury-led spending reviews. As well as administration budgets spent on the running of departments (see Part 1), these allocate day-to-day and capital budgets for departments to spend on their projects, programmes and services.
The October 2021 spending review was described as relatively generous at the time. The settlements announced then implied average annual increases in day-to-day spending of over 3% per year. However, those increases were front-loaded, with big increases in 2022/23 but more modest rises after that. And despite some additional money announced at the autumn statement in November 2022, the generosity of departmental plans have been squeezed by inflation and associated cost pressures, especially on pay.
The front-loading of the 2021 spending review in combination with tight spending plans beyond 2025 mean that overall day-to-day departmental spending is set to increase only very slowly over the next five years, at a pace not seen since the 2010s’ austerity era.
Detailed departmental settlements are only available for the next two years. But excluding grants to local government, all departments will see at best modest increases and many will see cuts in real terms in that time period. The context is important: increases are so small over the next two years because the increase this year was so large. If departments want to improve the performance of the programmes and services they oversee beyond this year, they will need to rely on making better use of the money they have rather than being able to increase funding further.
The performance framework will be key to managing spending decisions
The government’s performance framework, built around a set of ‘priority outcomes’ and annual outcome delivery plans (ODPs) for each department, is the means by which ministers can make difficult trade-offs, agree priorities and plans, monitor implementation, evaluate impact and change approach where required. It is the civil service’s primary tool with which to manage the delivery of the government’s priorities.
In winter 2022 the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Dowden, confirmed that the government would retain the existing performance framework, rooted in ODPs, as recent Institute work recommended. 222 Clyne R and Davies N, Outcome delivery plans: The case for keeping and improving the government’s performance framework, Institute for Government, 15 September 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/report/outcome-delivery-plans 223 Letter from Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP to Mr William Wragg MP, 24 November 2022, https://committees. parliament.uk/publications/31764/documents/178727/default This meant ministers avoided the common mistake made by new administrations to dismantle their predecessor’s performance framework and spend valuable time and effort creating their own (often similar) alternative.
Retaining the performance framework was a sensible decision for two principal reasons. First, recent changes have improved the framework: the measurement of objectives in terms of real-world impacts helps to avoid a narrow focus on bureaucracy, while its joint ownership by the Treasury, Cabinet Office and No.10 helps to view financial management alongside wider performance. And the inclusion of evaluation plans has the potential to make government more efficient by enabling departments to learn from what is and is not working. 224 Clyne R, ‘Outcome delivery plans can help ministers track the impact of public spending decisions’, blog, Institute for Government, 4 November 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/outcome-delivery-plans-spending
Second, the framework will be an important means by which civil servants and ministers can manage tight budgets and restrained public spending in years ahead. The Institute and CIPFA’s annual Performance Tracker found there is “no meaningful ‘fat’ to trim” from public services, and that further spending reductions are “almost certain to have a further negative impact” on performance. 225 Davies N, Fright M, Nye P, Hoddinott S, Pope T, Shepley P and Richards G, Performance Tracker 2022, Institute for Government, 17 October 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/performance-tracker-2022 By agreeing plans in departments’ priority outcomes and ODPs, ministers and officials can make these difficult trade-offs clearly. And the regular reporting between departments and the centre of government provides a means through which risks can be monitored and the impact of spending decisions can be understood.
Departments were tasked with agreeing any changes to their priority outcomes, first set at the 2020 spending review and updated in 2021, early in 2023. Their new ODPs are expected to be published in the spring. This means that, now ministers have decided to keep the framework, they and senior officials can focus on improving it. Institute for Government research in September 2022 recommended a range of ways it could do this, including by: 226 Clyne R and Davies N, Outcome delivery plans: The case for keeping and improving the government’s performance framework, Institute for Government, 15 September 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/outcome-delivery-plans
- improving the combination of metrics used to measure performance and publishing accompanying targets
- using greater input from the front line, experts and citizens with lived experience to make plans more robust
- publishing the more detailed, internal versions of ODPs and quarterly dashboards detailing departmental performance, to open the framework up to outside input and scrutiny.
Delivering large projects
The size and cost of the major projects portfolio has grown and remains risky
The delivery of the government’s major project portfolio (GMPP)* is a useful indicator of how well the civil service is undertaking its responsibility to implement ministers’ priorities. For its part the government sees the portfolio as a key means by which to achieve economic growth and meet the UK’s net zero targets. 252 Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Annual Report on Major Projects 2021–22, 20 July 2022, www.gov.uk/ government/publications/infrastructure-and-projects-authority-annual-report-2022 In 2022 the former Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said that the GMPP overall is expected to deliver more than £700 billion of benefits. 253 Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Annual Report on Major Projects 2021–22, 20 July 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/infrastructure-and-projects-authority-annual-report-2022
In 2022 the portfolio contained 235 live projects, the largest it has been since its inception in 2013 and almost double its 2020 size. Such projects include the Crossrail programme, which launched London’s new Elizabeth line, and the HM Passport Office transformation programme – originally launched in 2016 with the estimated cost of £107 million but retroactively moved to the GMPP in 2021 due its growing scope – costings for which now stand at £289m. Some 76 projects entered the portfolio this year, including the Meteor project, a multinational programme between the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Spain on sustaining missile capabilities. Most of the recently added projects started between 2020 and 2022, though some are older. A review into major project governance led to all eligible projects being added to the portfolio, regardless of start date. 254 Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Annual Report on Major Projects 2020–21, 15 July 2021.
The portfolio has also grown in total value. The lifetime cost of projects in the portfolio has grown by £97bn this year and now totals £678bn, the largest in the portfolio’s history and almost 30% of one year’s UK GDP. Of these, the largest projects by value are in the DfT, the MoJ and the MoD. Such projects include the high-profile Phase One of HS2, the high-speed railway line connecting London to the West Midlands, or the MoJ’s Accelerated Houseblock Programme, a project aimed at delivering 2,500 new houseblocks in prisons to accommodate the forecasted rising prison population. Many MoD projects are exempt from providing individual costings for security reasons, however some are known, such as the Land Environment Tactical Communication and Information System programme, a tactical military communications project, which will cost more than £13bn.
The purpose of placing projects in the GMPP is to monitor the most important strategic, long-term projects the government is delivering and ensure those projects are managed as effectively as possible by the civil service. This is made more difficult as the portfolio grows. It has also been made more difficult by changes to the risk rating system. Previous years used a five-category system from Red, Amber/Red, Amber, Amber/Green to Green.** This has been replaced by a three-category system of Red, Amber and Green. With recategorisation many previous and new projects have moved into the amber category, which now accounts for 72% of projects in the portfolio.
This change is explained as helping to make high-risk projects more easily identifiable. 255 Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Annual Report on Major Projects 2020–21, 15 July 2021, www.gov.uk/ government/publications/infrastructure-and-projects-authority-annual-report-2021 By highlighting projects most at risk (27 red projects in total) the rationale is this enables resources to be focused on these projects so they can leave the GMPP on schedule. However, with so many projects grouped into one category, this makes the system less nuanced and so less useful for distinguishing which projects warrant greater attention within that grouping.
Despite this, it still indicates the inherent riskiness of the portfolio. Only £27bn worth of projects are rated green (that is, expected to finish on time). That means over 90% of the portfolio value is rated amber at best, meaning there is some risk that the majority of projects in the portfolio will not be delivered on time. Some £37bn by value are rated red, meaning that successful delivery of these projects is judged to be unachievable.
* This portfolio is a list of complex projects delivered by government departments. Monitoring the progress of projects and providing support to aid successful delivery is the responsibility of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). The GMPP includes the government’s main projects in infrastructure, government transformation and service delivery, military capabilities and ICT, so tracking how it develops gives us insight into how the civil service is faring in its delivery of major projects across government.
** The colours indicate the likely success of a project achieving its aims and objectives on time and on budget. Red = unachievable. Amber/Red = Doubtful due to major or numerous risks. Amber = Feasible, however significant issues exist. Amber/Green = Probably, however constant attention is needed to prevent risks materialising. Green = Achievable.
Squeezed administration budgets will make managing the portfolio more difficult
As noted in Part 1, spending on civil service administration is set to fall over the next few years. Managing projects effectively requires sufficient civil service resources within departments devoted to those projects, so these cuts could pose a risk to delivery if they fall on teams managing projects. Previous Institute for Government research has highlighted that a lack of administration resource during the 2010s hindered efforts to spend departmental investment budgets well; for example, MHCLG had to delay spending money through the Housing Infrastructure Fund in 2018 and 2019 as it took longer than expected to evaluate bids. 256 Atkins G, Tetlow G and Pope T, Capital Investment: Why governments fail to meet their spending plans, Institute for Government, 2020, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/capital-investment-governments-spending-plans
The departments with the largest project portfolios – including DfT and MoJ – all have administration budgets that are relatively protected over the next few years, which reduces the risk that insufficient attention will be paid to these projects within Whitehall. But in an era of tight spending, the government should be wary of excessive cuts to delivery teams: this could prove to be an expensive false economy if high-cost projects get into trouble as a result.
Working transparently and communicating effectively
Trust in civil servants to tell the truth continues to fall
The No.10 press office faced criticism in 2022 for misleading journalists about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, suggested that the official spokesman’s subsequent apology was important for the relationship between press officers and the media 257 Rutter J, ‘Simon Case must put an end to No. 10’s press office lies’, blog, Institute for Government, 5 July 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/simon-case-no10-press-office-lies – but such incidents risk damaging the reputation of the civil service. Honesty is one of the values of the civil service code – officials must not “deceive or knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others” and the cabinet secretary should ensure that civil servants uphold that duty. 258 Civil Service, ’The Civil Service Code’, 16 March 2015, retrieved 15 December 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-service-code/the-civil-service-code
Public trust in civil servants continues to fall from the high of 65% in 2019 – currently 56% of people trust civil servants to tell the truth, slightly more than the proportion who trust the ‘ordinary man or woman in the street’ (55%). This figure is also much higher than that for government ministers (16%) and politicians in general (12%). 259 Ipsos MORI, Ipsos Veracity Index 2022, 23 November 2022, www.ipsos.com/en-uk/ipsos-veracity-index-2022 People in Great Britain are more likely to consider civil servants to be trustworthy than people in Germany, the United States and South Korea, though they are less likely than people in Canada, France and Denmark. 260 Ipsos MORI, Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Index 2022, 29 July 2022, www.ipsos.com/en/global-trustworthiness-index-2022 261 Ipsos MORI, Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Index 2022, 29 July 2022, www.ipsos.com/en/global-trustworthiness-index-2022
Some groups are less likely to trust civil servants: half or fewer of people from the lowest socio-economic background (41%) and people in the north of England (50%) now trust civil servants. Clear, effective communication and transparency over the way government works are two means by which trust in ministers and officials can
Communication remains vital to the government’s priorities, despite fewer ministerial press conferences following the acute phase of the pandemic
The end of the acute phase of the pandemic meant direct communication to the public by ministers reduced substantially, both in quantity and urgency, compared to 2020 and 2021. But throughout 2022, government communications remained important to policy outcomes, albeit in different form.
In response to the Russia–Ukraine war, the Government Communication Service (GCS) established the Government Information Cell, which the GCS chief executive, Simon Baugh, said worked to “identify and counter Kremlin disinformation targeted at UK and international audiences”, including via quickly declassifying intelligence and communicating it publicly.
Baugh S, ‘Collaboration, Innovation and Great People: The GCS Strategy’, speech at CIPR conference,
8 November 2022, https://gcs.civilservice.gov.uk/news/speech-collaboration-innovation-and-great-people-the-gcs-strategy In response to the cost-of-living crisis, the government launched a ‘Help for Households’ campaign, which Baugh said helped to promote 50,000 more claims for pension credit than in the previous six months. 263 Baugh S, ‘Collaboration, Innovation and Great People: The GCS Strategy’, speech at CIPR conference, 8 November 2022, https://gcs.civilservice.gov.uk/news/speech-collaboration-innovation-and-great-people-the-gcs-strategy And the death of the Queen required a carefully choreographed 12-day communications campaign to make the public aware of the commemorative activities.
However, in some instances the importance of communication to the government’s policy goals was not adequately recognised. For example, the delay in launching an energy saving campaign, which eventually began on 17 December 2022 almost nine months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine precipitated further difficulties in the supply of energy, was partly caused by ministerial churn preventing a decision being made (and stuck to). But that does not excuse the lack of action for months prior, during which many expert observers, including the Institute for Government, had called for such a campaign. 264 Sasse T, ‘Autumn statement’s focus on energy demand is overdue but welcome’, blog, Institute for Government, 18 November 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/autumn-statement-energy-demand
Government communicators need to consciously guard ethical boundaries
The role of the GCS is to communicate the activities of the government to citizens, not to engage in partisan communication. As the service’s 2022–25 strategy puts it: “Any statement that comes from official government channels should be justified by the facts. It should be objective and explanatory.” 265 Government Communication Service, Performance with Purpose: Government Communication Service Strategy, 2022, https://strategy.gcs.civilservice.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/gcs-strategy-2022-25.pdf
However, government communications sometimes fell short of this standard in 2022. The No.10 press office repeatedly denied that parties took place in Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic – only for the prime minister’s official spokesperson to subsequently admit they in fact had, and to apologise on record once fines were issued and Sue Gray’s report was released. Government communicators need to be aware of their ethical responsibilities as set out in the GCS propriety guidance, and held to account for meeting them.
The government has yet to return to its pre-pandemic levels of transparency
The demand for information from government has remained high since the start of the pandemic. In the 2021–22 session, 334 written parliamentary questions (WPQs) were tabled per Commons sitting day, slightly up from 331 in the 2019–21 session but much higher than 279 from 2017–19.
There was an increase in the proportion of answers provided by government departments on time – up from 79% to 85% of ordinary questions. But this is still short of the 2017–19 session, in which 92% were answered on time.
Departments that performed poorly from December 2021 to March 2022 attributed their slow response times to higher volumes or greater complexity of the WPQs received. DHSC performed the worst out of any department, answering just two thirds (68%) of questions within five working days, but the department also received the most ordinary questions at 5,859. This can understandably be attributed to increased demand for information about Covid and the government’s response, though the department tended to receive more WPQs than other departments even before the pandemic. In the 2017–19 session it received 8,843 ordinary questions (the closest department was the Home Office, with 5,127) and it answered 98.5% on time. DHSC has increased the number of civil servants responding to WPQs, 266 House of Commons Procedure Committee, Written parliamentary questions: Departmental performance in Session 2019–21, First Report of Session 2021–22, HC 532, 18 July 2021, https://committees.parliament.uk/ publications/6775/documents/72122/default but as of July 2022 the Commons Procedure Committee had not considered the department to have reached an acceptable level of performance.
Other relatively slow responders were the Home Office, which received 2,098 WPQs of which 74% were answered on time, and Defra (82% of 1,572). But the Treasury (1,764) and DfT (2,121) received comparatively high volumes of WPQs and answered all of them within five working days.
The Commons Procedure Committee has argued that answering WPQs should be treated as a “core delivery task” by departments. 267 House of Commons Procedure Committee, Written parliamentary questions: Departmental performance in Session 2021–22, Second Report of Session 2022–23, HC 385, 27 July 2022, https://committees.parliament.uk/ publications/23275/documents/169765/default Responding to written questions is an important way for the civil service to support ministers in demonstrating their accountability to parliament, including during periods of high demand.
The government continued to receive a high volume of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, though the demand has decreased since the height of the pandemic. Central government received 12,152 requests in the second quarter of 2022, a 6.4% decrease from Q2 2021 but still greater than the 11,137 requests during the same quarter in 2019.
In the last year, DHSC maintained its high level of FoI requests before falling from 559 in Q1 2022 to 316 requests in the next quarter, close to pre-pandemic figures. The Department for Education received 305 fewer FoI requests in the year to June 2022 than in the same time the previous year, as school disruption due to Covid was reduced. The Home Office received 238 more in this period as the department continued to face greater scrutiny, including for its controversial Rwanda asylum deal.
Government departments are required to respond (or claim extensions) to FoI requests within 20 working days if their response is considered to be ‘on time’. If a department does not meet this target for at least 90% of its FoI requests, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) may place it under special monitoring. In the second quarter of 2022, only seven of 18 government departments (39%) met the 90% target.
In September 2022, the ICO issued an enforcement notice to DIT for persistently failing to meet the statutory time limit – in the first quarter of 2022, the department responded late to 55% of its FoI requests. 268 ICO, ‘ICO takes action against two government departments for failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act 2000’, 8 September 2022, https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/media-centre/news-and-blogs/2022/09/ico-takes-action-against-two-government-departments This requires DIT to address its backlog of FoI requests and to publish an action plan to prevent against future delays – or risk being found in contempt of court.
DHSC and FCDO continue to perform poorly – they have not met the target since before the pandemic. Conversely, the Scotland Office and Defra’s FoI responses have all been within 20 working days since Q2 2021.
At a recent Institute for Government event the information commissioner, John Edwards, suggested that the government takes too long to respond to FoI requests, pointing to the potential to establish a network of FoI practitioners to learn lessons and share best practice between departments. 269 ‘In conversation with John Edwards, Information Commissioner’, IfG event, 17 November 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/events/john-edwards-information-commissioner
In the second quarter of 2022, 15.2% of FoI requests were partially withheld and a further 40.7% were fully withheld. The proportion of withheld FoI requests by the government rose to 58.5% in the last quarter of 2021, the highest level since Q3 2019. This reflects a long-term trend since 2005 – when the Freedom of Information Act came into effect – of a sustained increase in the proportion of partially or fully withheld FoI requests. Indeed, the last time that more than half of FoI requests were fully granted was in 2015.
There were signs that the Johnson government was more hostile than its predecessors towards transparency. In July 2021 the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) launched an inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s use of a ‘clearing house’ to co-ordinate responses to FoI requests across government, following campaigning by the openDemocracy media organisation. 270 House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ’Cabinet Office handling of FoI requests inquiry launched’, UK Parliament, 8 July 2021, https://committees.parliament.uk/work/1348/ thecabinet-office-freedom-of-information-clearing-house/news/156429/cabinet-office-handling-of-foi-requestsinquiry-launched The inquiry found a number of problems in the FoI process, including poor communication and delays and the criteria by which ‘public interest’ is evaluated. 271 House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House, Ninth Report of Session 2021–22, HC 505, 29 April 2022, https://committees. parliament.uk/publications/22055/documents/163743/default PACAC suggested the Cabinet Office’s position as lead department on FoI means it should set an example of best practice across government by proactively advocating for a culture of transparency.
The government largely rejected the committee’s recommendations but instead did accept the recommendations from a separate, internally commissioned review into the clearing house. 272 House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Cabinet Office rejects recommendations to improve transparency of its FOI handling, 7 July 2022, retrieved 25 November 2022, https://committees.parliament.uk/work/1348/the-cabinet-office-freedom-of-information-clearing-house/news/171927/cabinet-office-rejects-recommendation…; Cabinet Office, Freedom of Information: Clearing House Review, 25 August 2022, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/ government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1100384/Final_Report_-_Publication_versionFOI_CH_Review_20220824 1_.pdf Some of the recommendations of the internal review were similar to PACAC’s, such as ending the sharing of FoI requesters’ names around departments – but they did not include the committee’s recommendation for advocating a culture of transparency, nor a proposed audit by the information commissioner. The Cabinet Office has piloted the exclusion of requester names but it is unclear whether the new system has been implemented. 273 Cabinet Office, ‘Freedom of Information – FOI Clearing House Review’, 25 August 2022, www.gov.uk/ government/publications/cabinet-office-and-freedom-of-information/freedom-of-information-foi-clearing-house-review-html
Leading an engaged, motivated workforce
Engagement scores have stalled, signalling a problem for civil service management
After rising consistently since 2015, the civil service’s engagement scores in its 2021 staff survey stalled at 66%. And in a letter to civil servants in December 2022, the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, revealed that the headline summary scores of the 2022 staff survey had fallen in most departments since 2021. 274 Smith B, ‘”The message is clear”: Cab sec acknowledges civil servants’ pay anger’, Civil Service World, 12 December 2022, www.civilserviceworld.com/professions/article/civil-service-pay-anger-people-survey-strikes-negotiations-union-priority
The survey’s employee engagement index reflects civil servants’ attitudes to their organisation, measuring pride, advocacy, attachment, inspiration and motivation.
Engagement has fallen by four percentage points in the Home Office (57%), FCDO (63%) and DHSC (65%). The FCDO’s engagement score is lower than it was in 2010 (68%) and is below the civil service average for the first time, following a downward trend since the merger of FCO and DfID. Other departments, however, improved from 2020 to 2021 – engagement has increased by two percentage points in BEIS (67%), Defra (67%) and HMRC (59%).
The People Survey results in part reflect increased workload due to the pandemic. But since the 2021 survey was conducted, there have been two changes of prime minister, and civil servants have faced tension with government ministers over flexible working arrangements, proposed headcount reductions and pay and conditions. In the 2022 survey, civil servants expressed significant concerns over pay and benefits, as well as uncertainty in a period of rapid change. Worryingly, a minority of civil servants (41%) now report that their organisation motivates them to help achieve its objectives, down from 51% in 2021. 275 Wright O, ’Collapse in civil service morale after No 10 chaos’, The Times, 15 December 2022, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/collapse-in-civil-service-morale-after-no-10-chaos-zwf75szj0
Senior officials and ministers should see improving workforce engagement as a key priority for 2023 because poor morale undermines the effectiveness of the civil service and, by extension, the likelihood that the government’s priorities will be achieved. Low staff engagement highlights the importance of the government’s reform programme, and in particular in areas such as career progression. The appointment in September 2022 of the new chief people officer, Fiona Ryland, presents an opportunity to renew efforts to raise morale.
The civil service has found that engagement is driven primarily by organisational leadership and the way in which change is handled. 276 Cabinet Office, ‘Civil Service People Survey 2021: technical guide’, 17 October 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-service-people-survey-2021-results/civil-service-people-survey-2021-technical-guide Both ministers and senior leaders in the civil service have an important part to play in managing change well and factoring in the views of staff, to ensure the workforce is committed to their organisation’s objectives.