Nikki Da Costa is a former Director of Legislative Affairs at 10 Downing Street.

The Prime Minister is now on his third Chief of Staff* in as many years and, according to the Times, has been asked to consider the wholesale reorganisation of Number Ten and the Cabinet Office.

I have some hope that the worst elements of these proposed changes have already been scotched, and I am grateful to both Steve Barclay and Sam Jones, tasked with its execution, who called after I started to tweet on this subject. They are not deaf to the concerns being raised.

Under the most egregious version of the plan, Number Ten would be substantially slimmed down, with staff redistributed across three locations: Number Ten proper, 70 Whitehall, and – it is speculated – Old Admiralty House.

Some functions would be moved out and merged with the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, under a new brand of Office for the Prime Minister. The full-fat proposal was rumoured to have moved Policy Unit and Legislative Affairs out of Number Ten altogether.

Due to how the proposed reorganisation has been handled, no team feels entirely safe, and many core functions, particularly those that keep Number Ten running smoothly, are likely to feel their quiet but essential service has been dismissed.

This would have been an extraordinarily high stakes gamble two years before a general election. Proceeding would mean placing on the table the entire staff of Number Ten, their attention and retention, and the better part of a year to deliver a reorganisation for results that are likely to only start to materialise during mid 2023, and during a second term in office if there is one.

It is a gamble that can only be legitimised if there is a clear objective – a robust understanding of Number Ten’s purpose – and there is no easier route to achieving it.

I worry the first is still missing, and there is a risk of bypassing the second: that a personnel problem has been misdiagnosed as a structural one, creating an opportunity for those long frustrated by Number Ten’s capacity for and temerity in putting private advice to the Prime Minister.

Number Ten exists to protect the Prime Minister and the delivery of his agenda: officials and spads combined will push the envelope when needed. Proactively, Number Ten should be a political organ, the heart of government, pumping political oxygen into Whitehall, ensuring that policy and delivery aligns with what has been promised to the electorate.

Defensively, it is a police force, with small agile teams working closely together to interrogate proposals, working though how things will play out, and ultimately stopping stupid mistakes from happening. It is the only place in government where the big political picture can be constructed, and decisions made as to where political capital should be spent.

It should also be recognised that Number Ten sits within a system in which the entire political operation in government is extraordinarily thin: a couple of hundred political advisers in a workforce of half a million civil servants.

Yet, against this backdrop, Steve Barclay and the Prime Minister have been offered a Cabinet Office-centred diagnosis, focusing on Sue Gray’s comment that Number 10 is more akin to a small Government Department rather than her diagnosis of leadership failure. Plus the supposition that there is widespread duplication between the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat and Number Ten.

The Secretariat is invaluable, but it has a very different role: co-ordinating action across Whitehall, ensuring collective agreement, and helping to resolve disputes between departments. A strong Secretariat is the first line of defence if Number 10 is not to be swamped by every intragovernmental dispute. It benefits from distance from Number Ten – departments feel able to speak more openly to other civil servants – while retaining the threat of escalating the issue.

These distinctions could easily be lost alongside the agility, and proximity-derived authority of the Number Ten teams that move into Cabinet Office. What remains of the political operation in Number Ten would become a bottle neck, with significantly reduced bandwidth.

I believe that the senior team in Number Ten know that what matters is people and skills and how they link to outcomes. My hope is that they will work on the basics first: how to ensure that, when the Prime Minister takes a decision, he is presented with the full picture – so reducing the risk of unforced errors; and how to clearly communicate that decision and avoid confusion and wasted effort.

This is what I would recommend:

  • Clarify functions within Number Ten, and between Number Ten and the Cabinet Office: Clearly explain what each member of the senior team is responsible for and who to raise issues with. In turn, ask the teams to set out what their roles are, and when they should be brought in and why. Ask them where there are issues and overlap and how this could be resolved.
  • Value the political and civil service mix: Number Ten fuses political and Whitehall skills. Together, civil servants and political advisers combine political sensitivity, administrative know-how and subject expertise. It is a political operation in the broadest sense, but both halves are essential.
  • Keep it tight, but not too tight: no senior team, no matter how talented, can be across all the issues, nor avoid groupthink over time. Aim for functional cells where, on any given issue, the Prime Minister can call upon a tight-knit and expert team in the same building Private Secretary, policy lead, comms lead, and possibly delivery lead). For crucial meetings, a cast of those four to five people and the senior leadership team is not too big if there is prior preparation.
  • The Prime Minister must exercise self-discipline: it is not credible if he continues to blame everyone around him for the quality of advice he receives in meetings. People shout to be heard because discussion is not structured and there is a high-risk that relevant information will not be considered before a decision is taken. Similarly, discussing decisions bilaterally with ministers on WhatsApp without telling anyone and regularly backtracking, encourages poor behaviour in government and undermines his own office.
  • Look at Private Office: Private Secretaries are the voice of the Prime Minister in Whitehall. They need to be supported to grip their portfolios, but also be held responsible for bringing together different voices, and the quality of the overall advice. They must be challenged if they cut units out – particularly the Policy Unit. They must also where possible hear first-hand from the Prime Minister.
  • Encourage ownership and early warning: Connect work streams and parts of the building that would otherwise remain siloed and establish integration, discussion, and the sharing of issues, as the cultural norm. And please, tackle a culture of senior staff shouting or dismissing those more junior – it stops people speaking up.
  • Play devil’s advocate: where possible, in written advice or oral, have someone whose sole job it is to play devil’s advocate, with the responsibility of airing all the counter arguments, however unpopular. It’s astonishing how infrequently the PM gets to weigh opposing sides of an argument.

I could go on but what I propose is a constant process of attentive management and leadership in Number Ten rather than big-bang restructure.

* Whether or not Dominic Cummings accepted the title, he was recognised as such within Number Ten.