With talk of a reshuffle of the Coalition Government around every corner, it is also time to consider the structure of government departments. Many Prime Ministers have shown considerable interest in arrangements for ministries, offices and departments, especially from 1940 to 1980. Examples of radical reforms include the formation of five new departments by Harold Wilson in 1964 including the infamous Department of Economic Affairs, amalgamations of ministries to create such structures as the Ministry of Agriculture and Food in 1955, Ministry of Defence in 1964 and the Department of Health and Social Security in 1968. Most of these changes were associated with “corporate Britain” and, consequently, rarely celebrated.
More recent restructures, particular during the Blair and Brown years were regarded as politically expedient, short-term and a form of ‘window dressing’. Gordon Brown’s ill-fated Department Innovation, Universities and Skills deserved all of these descriptions. Restructuring of departments has earned a bad reputation and is now considered to be expensive and disruptive.
Today, the case against restructuring is not so obvious albeit politically difficult because of the balance of portfolios held by ministers from the two coalition parties. To begin with, the tasks of government have evolved to meet new challenges and some departments are presiding over radical reforms, altering the scope and capacity of policy making and administration.
The Department of Education is a case in point. Artificially cut off from colleges and universities, the department is making massive strides in delivering reforms to schools but is obviously struggling at the post-16 point and is thwarted in its aspirations to create a ‘seamless education profession’ from preschool to lifelong learning. Over at the somewhat eclectic Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the problem is the inability to devise, promote and deliver an industrial strategy. Shorn of its residual education functions but adding energy, a powerful new department of growth, incorporating infrastructure, industry and trade would emerge.
Climate change – never the obvious bedfellow of energy – could then be added to food and the environment, giving a holistic approach with political weight to protecting and enhancing the environment, hence a new, stronger and properly focussed Department of the Environment.
The overall result: one less department of state and four refocused, mission orientated and modern delivery vehicles to make the difference so necessary to secure Britain’s future. Of course, this would be unsettling, disruptive and even threatening. Agents for change and reform would be required.