'Time to govern up' by Nick Herbert MP & John Healey MP

Politicians talk a lot about failures to deliver, but too little about the real reasons why failure happens.  More often than not, the blame for a government project that goes wrong is attributed to political mistakes.  It is right, of course, that elected leaders should be accountable for the decisions they take.  But the desire to pin responsibility on political opponents has often allowed more fundamental problems to go uncorrected.

When an opposition party has been out of power for some time, its shadow ministers tend to have little experience in office. They may convince themselves that the government of the day’s main mistakes are the result of having the wrong policies and that a change of administration is the cure-all.  This was largely the case in the run-up to both 1997 and 2010 elections.  

This is not the case today.  Uniquely since the Second World War, all three major parties have current or recent experience in office.  All understand the importance of good policy and clear direction.  And all know that the effectiveness of the policy delivery machine is also vital. 

We believe a new consensus is building: that our system of government itself requires attention and reform, a view emerging more and more strongly in recent reports from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Public Administration Committee, academics and think tanks in the field. 

Professors Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe capture this in their book ‘The Blunders of Our Governments’, noting that modern “governments of all parties appear equally blunder-prone – a fact that in itself suggests that there are systemic defects in the British system of government, defects rooted in the culture and institutions of Whitehall and Westminster having little to do with party leaders, party members or partisan ideologies.”

The identified causes are common to many reports: a weak centre of government; high ministerial turnover; hyperactive political agendas; a deficit in accountability; feeble parliamentary scrutiny; inadequate skills in the Civil Service, and a lack of deliberation to counter short-termism.  

King and Crewe conclude: “… we take the view that in Britain our attention is too often directed towards the failings and foibles of individual politicians and parties and not nearly often enough towards the flaws in our political system.  Our study of blunders has made both of us far more sympathetic towards radical change than we were when we started out.”

We set up GovernUp ten months ago with the aim of promoting such radical change.  We did not believe there was sufficient ambition within Whitehall, or pressure from outside, to force the reform required.  

GovernUp set out to analyse the current problems and then to consider the reforms needed.  We set up six research projects to ensure focus on the right issues.  They have looked at lessons from international experience; the shape of the centre of government; the centre-local balance; the skills needed in a modern Whitehall; the role of today’s politicians – because this isn’t just about the Civil Service – and the opportunity which the digital revolution presents in re-shaping the relationship between citizen and state.

Today, we publish authored discussion papers from each of the projects.  These examine evidence of the problems and set out ideas for debate.  The starting point for their analysis is that there is both a necessity and an opportunity for change. The necessity is driven by the fiscal challenge, the requirement to reduce the deficit and drive greater efficiency in public spending, compounded by ever rising public expectations and demand for services.  The opportunity is that of technology to revolutionise not just the way services are delivered, but how citizens interact with government.

A number of common themes emerge.  First, the centre of government needs to be strengthened, with a greater focus on the efficiency of public spending and actually scrutinising value for money.  A more unified strategic core for government, “One Whitehall”, could be developed by turning the policy and headquarters functions of the Civil Service into a single organisation, built around the government’s priorities, and breaking down traditional departmental boundaries.  An Office of Budget and Management, combining functions from the Treasury and Cabinet Office, and a powerful Management Board responsible for the professionalism and effectiveness of government, would embed a fundamental change of culture in Whitehall.

Second, government needs to allow services to be re-designed according to user needs.  Too often departmental boundaries, siloed budgets and central direction get in the way of the innovation and localised inter-agency collaboration which personalised services require.  Civil Servants need to be deployed flexibly and strategically, budgets need to be devolved to allow local commissioning, and the architecture of government policy-making needs to support the design of end-to-end services.

A landmark Decentralisation Act would enshrine a presumption that services should be delivered locally, radically reducing the ability of central government to influence the day-to-day management of local government, with more public spending financed and controlled locally.  Junior Ministers could be deployed more effectively through the creation of cross-cutting programme divisions, breaking down departmental silos and making a named Minister responsible for those issues that are in the purview of two or more departments.

We also need to invest in the next generation of civic infrastructure.  Shared digital platforms for common needs should be used by central government teams and made available for local government partners, and suppliers.  The idea of “government as a platform” builds on the approaches taken by leading digital companies and could enable more user-responsive services and better information for citizens. 

Third, a crucial weakness within our system of government is flawed accountability.  The fiction that the buck can only stop with ministers, while officials can side-step responsibility for delivery, cannot endure.  The operational parts of the civil service could be turned into autonomous business units with visible, accountable leadership and governance.  Appointments to run a selected number of the delivery agencies central to delivering a new government’s programme should be made by the Secretary of State in charge, conditional on full confirmation hearings by a Commons select committee, so that public and parliamentary accountability for delivery alongside strategic policy is established.  An enhanced Civil Service Commission in which the grip of former civil servants is broken would provide external scrutiny and assurance on the pace and effectiveness of reform, whilst safeguarding core Civil Service values such as probity, integrity and political impartiality.

Stronger local accountability mechanisms with greater transparency, scrutiny and contestability for local services would drive the development of better, more efficient, user-focused services.  A ‘Digital Bill of Rights’ would affirm the principles of people’s right to control their own data and create a transparent framework for how government uses data.

Fourth, we need to strengthen leadership and capabilities across government to support delivery.  Civil service skills could be enhanced with more professional specialisation and better remuneration, funded by efficiency savings.  To achieve its capability ambitions, the Civil Service needs to learn from the best of both public and private sectors to attract, recruit, reward, develop and retain talented people.  But Ministers too, often need to better equipped to do their job.  They could have access to coaching or mentoring to supply them with the skills to be as effective as possible.  Both ministers and officials would benefit from longer periods in post.

Fifth, since Ministers are ultimately accountable, they need the resources to drive the government machine and ensure that their policies are delivered.  Ministers are an essential element of good government but are too often isolated in departments, insufficiently supported and ineffective.  The principle of Extended Ministerial Offices, augmenting teams around Ministers, is a good one which needs to be developed and fully implemented.  This is about providing more experienced and better qualified teams to support Ministers, not about politicising Whitehall.  Each Secretary of State could have a Principal Policy Adviser and a team of Policy Advisers, politically restricted, but drawn from outside as well as inside the Civil Service to provide challenge and expertise.  The ability to seek policy advice from outside Whitehall would be extended, and Ministers would have an experienced Chief of Staff with a remit to help them navigate relationships within Whitehall and facilitate interactions outside it.  The Prime Minister could appoint Ministers from outside Parliament, with new methods of accountability to elected MPs.

Some of these ideas are bold but all are do-able.  GovernUp welcomes views on them, and on areas for reform which we may not have identified.  

Our aim, after assessing the feedback, is to shape proposals for a reform agenda which all the major political parties could broadly support.  And we hope a wide range of other opinion will also broadly back such reforms. 

Most important will be the final ingredient: political leadership.  The last Labour government made a start on reforms, and this current Coalition government has pursued reform plans, which, significantly, have been largely supported by the Opposition.  But the support for change amongst senior ministers has been far too narrow.  There needs to be a drive for reform from the very top of government and the Civil Service if the next government want to deliver on their promises to the people.  The time has come to govern up.