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Whitehall

Nick Herbert is some kind of political entrepreneur. He always seems to be launching, or helping to launch, new enterprises. Business for Sterling’s campaign against the euro, the Countryside Movement, Reform, even his own departure from Government… the MP for Arundel & South Downs isn’t someone who relaxes into the armchairs and complacencies of Westminster. You can’t afford to if you actually want to change things.

And now Herbert has another enterprise on the go. Alongside Labour’s John Healey, he recently founded an “independent research project,” as the brochures put it, to look into how our system of government can be improved. It’s called GovernUp. And, last Wednesday, GovernUp held a meeting to present its first tranche of work to the world. MPs, commentators, researchers and civil servants were corralled into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre to digest and discuss. I was there too, lowering standards.

The work from that day, which was handed to attendees in a hefty folder, is available to read online. But in case your weekend has more to offer than reams of information about Whitehall reform, I thought I’d sketch out a few observations. After all, between the next election and promises of extra devolution, this is a moment of pivot for our system of government. It bears thinking about.

So what emerged from Wednesday? One of the biggest but also most incorporeal things was a sense of cross-party-ness. As Healey pointed out in his opening remarks, we’re in the strange position of having three major parties with recent experience of government – and that means they’re all mad as Hell with Whitehall and won’t take it anymore. This was evident in the energetic double-act of Healey and Herbert itself. It was also there in the day’s major set piece: a pair of addresses from Francis Maude and Lucy Powell.

Maude’s address was similar, in content and tone, to the one he delivered to ConservativeHome at the last party conference. He alighted on some of the many successes of his time in the Cabinet Office, but also on some of his remaining frustrations. “It’s incredibly hard work to get stuff done,” he lamented, “and it shouldn’t be.” He’d rather a different culture by which civil servants feel free to innovate and even to fail, if it means that they take a few more steps on the hard-won path to success.

Which led to Powell’s address. She has a double role as one of the organisers of Labour’s general election campaign and as Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. In the first, she’s all out to get the dastardly Tories. In the second, she’s finding herself agreeing with them. She began, on Wednesday, by praising Maude: “You have brought about real change.” And she even went on to describe how knockabout politics can run counter to good governance, with many a doorstep promise made without proper consideration of how it will be implemented.

And there were other thoughts from other MPs who were present. Bernard Jenkin suggested that we spend too much time discussing how Whitehall and the wider civil service should be organised, when something more is needed. He used the example of the Health Bill: that restructured the NHS, but it did nothing to change it culture – “Hunt is trying to do this now.” Whilst Richard Bacon argued persuasively that ministers, and in fact all MPs, should be given more training. The civil service is a massive, dysfunctional corporation. It doesn’t pay to go in cold.

But the biggest idea of the day, to my ears at least, came out of some research done by the suits at McKinsey for GovernUp. They looked at the examples of Denmark and the United States, where there’s a much greater emphasis on securing value for money. Over there, budgets are determined and then the individual departments are constantly evaluated on how they spend them. Here, the Treasury portions out money and then quickly gets back to thinking about the wider economy. Might we benefit from what GovernUp is calling an Office of Budget and Management?

This actually plays into a couple of this Parliament’s leitmotifs. As I’ve written before, one of Maude’s most significant policies was the creation of the Efficiency and Reform Group within the Cabinet Office. This group is tasked with helping other departments find savings within their budgets – and it’s done exactly that, to the tune of many billions of pounds. But does the Treasury care? Well, it does now. Yet there was a time when HMT stood apart from the ERG. These two organisations should have been joined up, but they were divided as so much else is along Whitehall.

Bringing these functions together means bringing the centre of government together – and strengthening it. There’s been plenty of talk about centralising to decentralise over the past few years; meaning that the Government has to impose its will if it wants to change things for the better. But an Office of Budget and Management is about centralising to save and streamline. With an almost £100 billion deficit still remaining, that’s a notion that could catch on.

And plenty of GovernUp’s other notions could catch on as well. Digitisation, better HR practices, localism; there’s just too much to properly mention in a single blog-post. So I’ll finish with two random things that stand out from my notebook. One, a proposal that junior ministers be given briefs that range across departments, in the hope of creating a bit of unity. The other, a warning from IPPR’s Nick Pearce that further devolution needs to come in this year’s Spending Review, otherwise it’s unlikely to come at all. The way it’s worked before, spending powers have always preceded other powers. You need to sort out the money first.

None of this is necessarily vote-winning stuff. As Martin Wheatley observed on Wednesday, the way that government works doesn’t even make into people’s top 35 concerns in opinion polls. But the way that government works also has a direct connection to all the things that people do care about. So, good luck to GovernUp and to Nick Herbert – you’ll need it, but you deserve it too.

55 comments for: Fixing Whitehall: The growing consensus about what should happen next

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