The success of every policy initiative and government programme depends upon the capacity and capabilities of government itself, which are too often found wanting. That’s why six months ago Policy Exchange convened a major Reform of Government Commission, chaired by Dame Patricia Hodgson – former Ofcom Chairman – to determine how government can be modernised and equipped for the challenges of the 21st century.
The Commission – whose members include former Treasury Permanent Secretary Lord Macpherson, former Education Secretary Baroness (Nicky) Morgan, former Chief of the General Staff General Sir Peter Wall and former Communities Secretary Hazel Blears – has heard from a range of expert witnesses over the last six months, including former Cabinet Secretary Lord Sedwill, former Home Secretary Lord Blunkett and former Cabinet Office Minister Lord Maude.
The Commission’s findings are published today and have already been welcomed by Michael Gove; the former chief executive of Manchester City Council, Sir Howard Bernstein; and former Permanent Secretary Dame Sue Owen. It’s a critical report that reveals low levels of public confidence in Whitehall. But it offers a very clear message: reform of government is the catalyst to delivering the government’s mission to “build back better” after the pandemic. As Ben Houchen, a member of the Commission and the Tees Valley Mayor who was re-elected with 73 per cent of the vote two weeks ago, warns: “Without the right talent and tools in the Civil Service, the levelling up agenda risks coming off the rails.”
What should be done? The Commission’s report, Government Reimagined, calls for an urgent programme of modernisation, including improved training on the job for ministers and special advisers so they are equipped to manage and reform individual government departments. The Civil Service must also take drastic steps to reduce unnecessary internal turnover and do more to attract, support and retain external recruits.
Real reform requires strong leadership. Permanent secretaries’ contracts (currently placed on a five-year fixed tenure) should be renewed only if they can demonstrate a proven track record of reform. As Dame Patricia Hodgson argues: “We must return to the ideals of Northcote-Trevelyan and ensure that not only do we recruit the best and the brightest but that they are also rewarded and promoted on merit, not on time served.”
If the planned £600 billion of gross public sector investment on infrastructure is to be successful, the government must increase the number of Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) – officials accountable to Parliament for ensuring a programme or project meets its objectives. The Commission heard evidence that SROs are often responsible for more than one multi-million pound project. Can you imagine trying to run a multi-million pound infrastructure project and only being able to work on it two days a week? Formal limits on the number of projects on which SROs can work at any one time must be introduced.
Leadership should also be consistent. Take the Home Office Digital Services at the Border programme, found recently by the National Audit Office to be running £173 million over budget. Between 2014 and 2019, the programme had four senior responsible owners and three programme directors. There should always be robust performance monitoring of SROs and the expectation that they will stay in place for the duration of a project.
Such changes are necessary but not sufficient. Reform to the structures of central government has not kept pace with the complexity of modern policy and delivery challenges. As the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the government must constantly manage complex and dynamic policy issues. However, it is still structured according to narrow departmental ‘silos’ established in the early 20th Century, making it difficult to tackle problems which cut across departmental boundaries.
Space policy provides an extreme example of how institutional disorder in Whitehall can cause permanent dysfunction within a critical domain. The Cabinet Office supports the one-year-old National Space Council; the Ministry of Defence is home to the newly established Space Command; BEIS sponsors the UK Space Agency; the Department for Transport sponsored the Space Industry Bill in 2018 and is now taking over responsibility for spaceflight regulation via the CAA; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs leads Earth Observation requirements. Both the FCDO and DIT also have an interest in UK space policy. If you were designing the system from scratch, would you divide responsibilities in this way?
The same applies to the digital transformation of Whitehall. The government must reinvent the way public services are operated, conceived, designed and managed in light of technological advances. The purchasing and building of new technologies often occurs in parallel across government departments, even though the requirements or business operations of those technologies are often identical. Unless the government can establish the structures and leadership to pursue a joined up approach to digital and data, progress is unlikely to be made.
Government use of emerging and disruptive technology requires ethical oversight. A Digital and Data Audit Office should be established to ensure accountability for progress when it comes to digital transformation. Modelled on the National Audit Office, this would provide the technical and ethical scrutiny of digital products and services that is currently lacking, exploring their code base, user experience and technical resilience.
Government must transform itself if it is to make the most of the opportunities from Brexit, adapt to rapid technological change and prepare for an unpredictable future. National crises have often precipitated the most effective and lasting reforms to government in the United Kingdom. Faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, government has time and again shown an extraordinary adaptability and capacity to improve. The COVID-19 pandemic is another such crisis. The moment for reform is now.
Benjamin Barnard is head of technology policy at Policy Exchange and author of Government Reimagined.