Julian McCrae is the Deputy Director of Institute of Government.
Any incoming government will face a big challenge – to keep its manifesto promises. From large infrastructure projects like HS2, to continuing the reform of schools, to building more homes, the Conservatives have made big commitments during the course of this campaign. And, of course, they are also committed to improving the day-to-day workings of government, finding Francis Maude’s £10bn of additional efficiency savings by 2017-18.
Making sure that Whitehall has the capacity to help deliver these promises will be essential. Previous governments have often found mid-term they are failing to achieve the changes they want, leading prime ministers to make colourful comments about getting things done in government, like Tony Blair’s “scars on my back”, and most recently David Cameron’s reference to the “buggeration factor”. Ensuring this does not happen in future will undoubtedly require the whole of Whitehall – both official and political – to improve how it does things. This takes time and persistence.
Fortunately, the next Government does not have to start from a blank sheet. Over the last few years, we have seen a host of initiatives aimed at improving the way in which Whitehall works. Despite their rather abstract titles – the Civil Service Capability Plan , the Financial Management Review and the Twelve Actions to Professionalise Policymaking – they have led to action on professional skills in Whitehall.
The Major Projects Authority has greatly enhanced Whitehall’s ability to make sure projects stay on track. Spending controls have helped eliminate waste. And ‘hothouse’ approaches have been used in the Behavioural Insights Team (a.k.a the Nudge Unit) and the Government Digital Service to bring in people with completely new mind sets, helping to change the way in which Whitehall works.
While there has been much progress, this emerging model remains immature. There is relatively little coherence between the different approaches, and many individual initiatives have yet to deliver their potential. The next government must build on what has gone before. It does not need, and will not have the time, to start from scratch.
It is therefore essential that, should he return as Prime Minister, David Cameron takes this agenda seriously, because the success or failure of his government will depend on it. The Civil Service cannot make sustained progress on its own without political support. However serious Whitehall might be, immediate political priorities trump internal civil service reform efforts – so the two need to be aligned.
The appointment of ministers following the election in May 2015 will be a critical indication of whether the necessary political drive is still there. There are four things to watch as this is happening:
- Are the Prime Minister and Chancellor publically committed to improving Whitehall’s capability to deliver their priorities?
- Is the Prime Minister appointing a minister – others have speculated about who this should be – who is clearly responsible for ensuring this improvement will happen?
- Does the remit of the minister build on the role played since 2010 by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude? Does the remit make clear how central these improvements are to the wider government agenda?
- Is the minister able to provide sustained and stable political leadership? Is it likely that the minister will remain in post through at least the first reshuffle? Or is the position being used as a staging post for people waiting for a future promotion or moving out of government?
Without clear political leadership from the outset, the next Government runs the risk of having to revisit reform in Whitehall after losing the momentum that has built up over the last five years. It will be clear whether this has happened within days of the Government’s formation.