Nick Herbert is co-chair of GovernUp and MP for Arundel and South Downs. He is also a former minister for police and criminal justice.
The new Prime Minister will take office amidst a political crisis in which Whitehall reform may not seem a priority. In fact, the challenges of delivering Brexit, together with fiscal pressures, mean that strengthening the system of government cannot be an optional extra: it will be key to the success of the new administration. Today GovernUp, an independent project for effective government which I co-chair, has published this 10-point plan for the new PM:
1. Prioritise reform of government itself as the key to delivering all other policy objectives
The British system of public administration was designed in the 19th century and, despite its strengths, is no longer equal to the challenges facing our country. The Civil Service lacks crucial skills, with its top tiers still dominated by generalists, while departments create silos and the centre of government is fragmented.
The need for reform is increasing. Growing pressure for more public spending and rising demands for services are not matched by current rates of economic growth. There will be a premium on identifying savings which do not require reductions in spending on frontline services.
Ensuring that government can deliver is critical to policy success, but the system is resistant to change. Only if the Prime Minister, as Minister for the Civil Service, makes reform a priority, and puts his full weight behind it, will there be real advances in the capacity of government to deliver.
2. Establish a new Department of the Prime Minister
The centre of government should take control of some critical policy areas directly. The responsibility for overseeing Brexit negotiations should be absorbed from the Department for Exiting the European Union, repurposing that department around No Deal preparations.
A powerful new Department of the Prime Minister would include these key appointments:
i. A senior minister outside the Commons as the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. He/she should be an experienced, first-rank political professional, not a talented young politico – Leo McGarry, not Sam Seaborn. The Chief of Staff should command the confidence of the PM, the respect of mandarins and the fear of political staff.
ii. A heavyweight director of an expanded government Policy Unit at the core of the new department. Some of the most effective reforming governments have brought valuable private sector experience to leverage this role, for example John Hoskyns in the early years of the Thatcher Government.
iii. A director of a new dedicated Strategy Unit as a counterpart to the Policy Unit, focusing on long-range planning.
iv. Re-separation of the positions of Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser to allow proper focus from each.
3. Create a strong new department at the centre of government to drive performance, efficiency and delivery
The Treasury does not have the capacity for real oversight of spending, failing to ensure that financial plans match policy and delivery intentions, while the Cabinet Office has been preoccupied with Brexit. A single, dedicated function at the core of government to drive performance, efficiency and delivery is needed.
This could be achieved either by beefing up the Treasury’s spending oversight role, or – more radically – transferring those functions to a new ministry built out of, or superseding, the Cabinet Office, with a senior Secretary of State at the helm. Separate departments handle spending oversight and macroeconomic policy in major economies like Australia and Germany. We should do the same.
4. Don’t create new departmental fiefdoms – break them down
Other major alterations to the structure and number of existing government departments should be rejected. Cutting the number of cabinet ministers would reduce the Prime Minister’s patronage, while cosmetic departmental reorganisations should be avoided. They generally waste time, sap energy and distract from real issues. What’s needed is not to create new fiefdoms, but to break them down, ensuring far more effective cross-departmental working.
5. Strengthen support for ministers
Ministers’ private offices are severely underpowered. The Coalition Government introduced Extended Ministerial Offices to allow experts to be recruited directly to support ministers. But central controls deterred ministers from setting them up, and they were subsequently scrapped.
This innovation should be restored and deepened. Ministers need more support and alternative sources of advice, and the system should more easily allow outside experts to be brought in.
This is not solely about recruiting more political advisers, although ministers still have far fewer of these compared to countries such as Australia, but also about securing the advice of policy experts, business leaders, and finance professionals.
6. Accelerate the digital transformation of government business and services
While the world is transformed by the internet age, government has remained more or less the same, despite efforts to raise the profile of technological innovation and service delivery over the course of this decade. The Government Digital Service should be given stronger powers over departments to implement the long-promised unified digital platform for access to public services and information, while a National School for Technology would better equip public servants.
7. Reform the Civil Service
The Civil Service should be smaller, better remunerated and equipped with world-class skills. The barriers between Whitehall and the outside world should be more porous, with more secondments to and from the private sector.
Layers of Civil Service management should be reduced. Pay should be performance-related, and the pay ceiling for the most important jobs should be scrapped.
A new ‘Deep Stream’ would draw in a new generation of highly talented outsiders. There should be a professional CEO in every government department, recruited from the private sector.
8. Set and publish clear objectives for cabinet ministers
In Australia and Canada, and under Tony Blair, the Prime Minister has written an open letter to ministers to set out what specifically he wants from them. The new Prime Minister should do the same for every cabinet minister, replacing ineffectual Single Departmental Plans, making clear from the top of government what is expected, and how departmental performance is going to be evaluated.
9. Reboot departmental boards
Departmental boards were given a stronger role by the Coalition Government, but their effectiveness has varied depending on the commitment of ministers and permanent secretaries.
Boards should be given a renewed remit to drive through the next wave of Whitehall reforms. Non-executive directors should be given the ability to delay or veto bad decisions and specific responsibility for particular departmental projects. If Secretaries of State will not take their boards seriously, the Prime Minister should appoint independent outsiders as chairs.
10. Equip ministers for the job
Ministers receive no formal training, peer-to-peer support, mentoring or appraisal. Many assume positions of immense responsibility with little or no experience outside politics or of running large organisations. Ministers and their advisers should have access to mentors, senior leadership training and the support of external experts.
A new Prime Minister has a brief window of opportunity to make systemic changes such as these. Next week he should take it. Both candidates have made big promises. They will need to make sure government is equipped to deliver them.