Opposition parties seldom have much time to think about the wiring of government. Shadow ministers and their advisers spend their days challenging ministers on the content of decisions – not on how they are made. If they have any time after that, they devote it to developing their own policies for future elections. Thinking about how to make government work once they gain power always comes a distant third.
Keir Starmer’s Labour opposition is no different in this. But there is recognition on his frontbench that some thinking about the machinery of government is necessary. This is partly because there are short-term opportunities in challenging and undermining Conservative ministers, after the coronavirus pandemic revealed so much incompetence and sleaze in the process of central decision-making.
But there could also be long-term benefits. Pledging institutional reforms might be one way for Labour to demonstrate trust and seriousness from opposition, as David Cameron proved when he invented the Office for Budget Responsibility. And even if nothing is announced in public, future ministers need to think in advance about how they will achieve their ambitions. Otherwise, they will not be ready to use the levers of power effectively.
What did we learn from the pandemic?
The pandemic shone a light on what works and what doesn’t at the centre of government.
There have been some positives. When there was a single-minded focus on a priority, the government was able to deliver well, as with the vaccines strategy. Number 10 and the Treasury were also successful at developing policies at pace when they repurposed existing systems and institutions, such as the HMRC and DWP technology platforms. And after a shambolic start, central communications improved and cabinet committees are said to have become more effective, with a split between groups for strategy and implementation.
But a great many weaknesses were also exposed. Most obviously, the pandemic revealed huge problems in the way we prepare for national emergencies. Despite a viral pandemic being at top of the government’s risk register, preparedness exercises had not seriously engaged with key departments like education and business. The Cabinet Office’s civil contingencies secretariat had nothing like sufficient clout or capacity, considering what a huge difference a faster, more effective response could have made to lives and livelihoods.
Then, once the crisis was upon us, too often the government tried to create systems from scratch, rather than repurpose things that existed already, and policies failed as a result. Glaring examples included NHS track and trace and the Treasury’s green home grants. More generally, observers argue that the Cabinet Office served Number 10 poorly in bringing together departmental advice and presenting a cross-government perspective. The government in Westminster was also extremely poor at working with other centres of power in the nations and city regions. And the centre of government failed to ‘walk and chew gum’: other vital national priorities were sidelined for over a year, because ministers and the Whitehall machine only had bandwidth to focus on Covid-19.
Finally, the pandemic exposed acute vulnerabilities with respect to integrity and ethics at the heart of government. Labour politicians admit to being surprised that the respected institutions of the British state have proven unable to stand up to the cronyism and impropriety injected into the body politic under the Conservatives in recent years. The professional standards, checks and balances and institutional cultures that uphold probity have been under sustained assault for some time, as part of a project to ‘Brexify’ the personnel and institutions of government and public institutions. But the Covid-19 crisis made things much worse. Restoring institutional guardrails and giving civil servants permission to push back against impropriety and cronyism must be a top priority.
Principles for reform
So what approach should Labour take when it thinks about the centre of government? It is too early to form definitive plans, not least because it is not yet clear what legacy the party might inherit after an election in 2023 or 2024. But Labour should develop some big-picture principles with the detail to follow:
- Prepare a roadmap for the first year – decide well in advance what essential reforms are needed to the institutions of government to restore trust and set Whitehall on a new path. Make plans from opposition for how you will run your first spending review.
- Be crystal clear about your key goals and how to deliver them – specify very clearly what you want to achieve, ideally from opposition so officials can prepare in advance. Understand what levers of change and partners are needed to achieve goals, as very little can be achieved by the centre of government alone.
- Demand cross-government solutions to cross-government problems – almost all the big challenges facing future ministers’ cut across departmental boundaries (eg climate change, health inequalities, productivity and housing). Designing strong machinery for cross-government strategy, coordination and challenge is essential.
- Create structures that push you to long-termism – politics pushes ministers towards firefighting and short-termism so avoid machinery that might make this worse (eg ‘war rooms’ with live data feeds). Create processes and institutions that can act as a corrective – eg analytical capacity focused on long-term trends; a requirement for financial and fiscal planning over 10 years and longer.
- Design institutions that restore integrity, trust and challenge – announce plans from opposition for stronger checks and balances or improved transparency (‘good intentions’ become harder once in government). In doing this, consider where more arms-length advice, scrutiny or regulation of ministers is needed. Examples might include regulation of public appointments or procurement; permanent structures for independent advice on key policy questions (replicating the climate change committee); and stronger scrutiny of policy effectiveness (ie internal structures to follow-up and implement findings from the National Audit Office).
- Build stronger capabilities at the centre – British politicians and policy makers are suspicious of the idea of a ‘prime minister’s department’ but Number 10 and the Cabinet Office need stronger capacity, intelligence and authority. Improved central capabilities are needed across a wide range of areas:
- Short-term policy challenge and co-ordination
- Long-term, cross-government insight and problem solving
- Monitoring and progress chasing on delivery and performance
- Economic capabilities (independent of the Treasury)
- Partnership and coordination with respect to nations, regions and social partners
- Professional leadership, standard-setting and accountability for public service professions – procurement, digital, finance, science, policy appraisal etc
- Resilience and civil contingencies
- Minority/coalition government management, in the event of a hung parliament
- Push power outwards and downwards – by building a stronger centre with better intelligence, capabilities and standard-setting powers, ministers will be able to obtain the reassurance they need to also devolve more to departments, agencies, regions and localities.
- Create better feedback loops – seek better intelligence and decision-making feedback loops between the centre of government and frontline services, digital platforms, and those leading the financial cycles of budgeting, monitoring, audit and evaluation
- Reward independent-thinking and challenge from civil servants – civil servants want to please new ministers but in the long-term it serves a party of government best if they provide independent-minded challenge. Speaking truth to power should be rewarded in promotions. Civil servants should be able to become deep experts in their fields and rotate less often. New institutional arrangements should also be considered – eg board structures in place of cabinet committees, so that ministers and top officials sit alongside each other with more equal status as decision-makers.
There are lots of things that are badly in need of repair, but there are also no right or perfect answers. Circumstances and people change, so the principles should be applied flexibly in different ways at different times (remembering that structures need to fit with the personalities of the leading figures in government). However, evolution is usually better than sudden transformation. Big changes always come with costs, so these principles should be applied in a way that minimises disruption: where possible incoming ministers should repurpose and build on the architecture they inherit rather than rip it up and start again.
This article draws on discussions at a seminar held in July 2021, The centre of government: what should Labour’s plans be for cross-government coordination, strategy and accountability? convened by the Fabian Society in partnership with ICAEW.