Show Hide image

The state we’re in

How the pandemic has exposed the institutional failings of British governance.

All kinds of lessons can be drawn from the debacle of Dominic Cummings’ road trip to the north-east, and different political meanings squeezed out of this extraordinary episode. But in the context of a growing clamour to pin the blame for England’s seemingly poor response to the coronavirus pandemic on the decisions made by ministers and advisers, we should think, too, about whether the wider machinery of British governance should also be held accountable. 

To his critics, Cummings is the personification of the unaccountable and centralised character of executive authority that sits at the apex of British government. And while the influence of individual advisers on prime ministers has been a long-running theme in British politics, Cummings’ unrivalled dominance over Boris Johnson’s administration is without obvious precedent in recent political history. Also distinctive is his inveterate critique of the state over which he has assumed such influence. His conviction here is shared by a number of other influential Conservatives. For them, the need to “fix Whitehall” – as Danny Kruger put it in a private message to his fellow Tory MPs – is one of the main reasons, along with Brexit, why Cummings is so important to this government. 

The pandemic, and some of the institutional failings it has exposed, could well provide opportunity and rationale for a programme of major reform – of specific organisations that have been found wanting, such as Public Health England, and, more ambitiously, of the central structures of government. Tellingly, the recent plan for exiting lockdown included a declaration of intent to undertake “a rapid re-engineering of government’s structures and institutions to deal with this historic emergency and also build new long-term foundations for the UK”. Already there have been various changes at the heart of government – for instance, the appointment of Simon Case as permanent secretary within No 10 – which reflect a wish to ensure greater coherence in the handling of the virus, and in the implementation of key decisions within Whitehall.

The impulse to add to the already overloaded government agenda the challenge of Whitehall reform is striking – and will be seen by some as foolhardy during a pandemic, and others as overdue. 
Cummings is a trenchant critic of Whitehall, bemoaning its preponderance of humanities graduates, and their lack of data and other analytical skills. In addition, he despises the antiquated structures of central government, with departments that are not properly focused on key goals and unable to deliver projects, and that lack the blend of skills, ambition and strategic direction he craves. The critical fire expressed in his blogs may be alarmingly scattergun, but he undoubtedly hits some important targets. These include the culture of frenetic churn in Whitehall, which means that officials often spend too little time in roles, and militates against the kinds of specialist knowledge and technical know-how badly needed in many areas of government. 

Cummings, and others, will be wondering if the present crisis is the kind of critical juncture, that has, historically, created openings for new policy paradigms to emerge, and for big institutional changes to happen. Recent examples include the radical remaking of New Zealand’s state. It changed course towards pro-market policies (under the influence of controversial finance minister Roger Douglas), which were introduced by the David Lange administration after 1984 in the context of a deepening fiscal and economic crisis. Cummings seems drawn to earlier, more epochal, moments of rupture and state-led reform, evidenced by his abiding fascination with Bismarckian statecraft.

While their shared aspiration is to break from the traditions and structures of governance holding back the innovation state, reformers such as Cummings and Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office, might also be seen as the latest manifestations of a much older lineage in British politics. This comprises a string of technocrats and politicians similarly frustrated at the institutional obstacles to economic modernisation posed by the ramshackle state, and some of its core features – most notably the entrenched, unyielding power of the Treasury. This line stretches back through Margaret Thatcher’s radical adviser and head of her policy unit John Hoskyns, a latecomer to politics from the worlds of business and technology; Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” rhetoric in the 1960s; and the powerful critique of the state’s failure to plan for the longer term, articulated by economist Andrew Shonfield in the previous decade. It arguably stretches back further still, with roots in the national efficiency movement of the Edwardian era, which demanded a new set of governing institutions and major welfare reforms in the wake of the trauma associated with the Boer War. Cummings diverges from this heritage in some respects, with his inveterate hostility to old-style planning, and his apparent lack of interest in the processes and functions of modern administration. 

But in some key respects he and his fellow radicals in government are reinventing a much-turned wheel. A similar mood of anti-bureaucratic frustration underpinned the establishment of two important new pieces of institutional furniture during Tony Blair’s time in government – the strategy unit and the delivery unit, both located within the Cabinet Office. These were intended to beef up the prime minister’s strategic oversight of Whitehall priorities, and to inculcate a previously missing capacity to engage with emergent trends and unseen threats (pandemics included) on the one hand, and to tackle the increasing chasm between the development of policy ideas in the heart of government and the reality of their implementation at the sharp end of service delivery, on the other. 

Today’s revolutionary calls for the more systemic use of data, greater focus on outcomes and delivery, and the employment of methods like super-forecasting, were all familiar themes in the thinking of influential figures such as Michael Barber, founder and first head of the Blair government’s delivery unit, in this earlier period. Those talking today about the need for a cutting-edge unit in No 10 that will oversee project delivery are making exactly the same kind of argument as their predecessors 20 years ago. 

The coalition government after 2010 axed both of these Blairite innovations, launched its own modernising initiatives and ended up reintroducing the delivery unit under another name (the PM’s implementation unit). It focused more heavily on incorporating digital technology into the Whitehall machine, improving procurement processes and giving ministers more power over senior civil service appointments. 

But much of the earlier New Labour-era discourse resurfaced. Despite engineering some changes, like the Government Digital Service, a sense of imbalance between the reforming ambition and its actual achievements endured. Many of the institutional fundamentals of the British model – not least the power of the “imperial Treasury” – remained firmly in place.

So, what might be learned now from these efforts, especially in a context where some of the weaknesses and failings that generated them have been laid bare? 

One of the key lessons is the hardest of all for those at the centre to learn. It is, in essence, that shaking up the structures of the British state machine is not itself enough to create an effective, flexible and modern governing system that can face complex challenges of the sort that a pandemic generates. The centre’s disconnection from the many layers of governance that coexist in different parts of the UK, and the limitations in top-down centralism’s ability to solve problems on its own are increasingly apparent flaws of the British model. Reform of the machinery and culture of central government may well be important, but without a fundamental shift in the centre’s mindset and approach, it is unlikely to be enough.

The lack of engagement by senior figures in the current government with local authority leaders and metro mayors in England, the inability to share testing data with other key bodies and authorities, and the disregard for locally based directors of public health, have all come back to haunt the government as the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded. Consider the perilous decision to push people leaving hospitals back to care homes – a choice made by a handful of senior figures. As one former Whitehall insider put it, there is a pretty good chance that this would have been more robustly questioned in a process that involved local public health directors or officials from different tiers of government. 

While centralism has undoubtedly served Britain well at previous moments of crisis – not least in the Second World War – it carries significant risks too. It is hugely dependent on the abilities of a tiny number of decision-makers to make the right calls, and, when divorced from other checks and balances in the system, is easily prey to groupthink or the undue influence of political priorities. 

Now, as it scrambles to install a system of testing and tracing, central government has belatedly come to see that this can only be achieved in partnership with these bodies and authorities. Its instinctive response, when faced with major challenges like failings in the supply of PPE or the need to increase testing numbers, has been to fall back on the ingrained habit of awarding contracts to one of the small number of corporate players, like Serco, which have come to dominate public service provision in the UK, rather than engage the expertise and capacity of the layers of public governance beneath it. This, too, has become an ingrained characteristic of a certain style of Whitehall centralism. 

More generally, the UK government has fumbled its dealings with the devolved administrations, and appears poorly equipped to navigate the realities of devolution which mean that the governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all able to make their own decisions about lockdown, and the pace and nature of their exit from it. 

These administrations have all faced their own political and logistical problems in managing the crisis, but Johnson’s poorly executed announcement of the easing of lockdown gave his opponents a ready opportunity to portray the UK government as unduly reckless. And he has also been met by a loud, and angry, chorus of complaint from some of England’s city leaders, deeply concerned at regional differences in the rate of infection (the R number), which appeared to have left little mark upon the government’s decision-making. An administration that had secured a swathe of non-metropolitan support across England and Wales in the December election seemed to be myopically focused on London and the south-east. 

The multilayered and unbalanced system of devolution that has grown, in fits and starts, over the past two decades across the UK leaves the governance of England opaque and incoherent. And this has been laid bare as the crisis has deepened. Too often, the instinctive response of politicians and advisers at the centre is to revert to the comforting myth that they still stand at the helm of a unitary state, rather than being the main player in a multi-levelled patchwork of governing authorities. 

Avoiding the issue of the UK’s complicated system of governance is tempting, in part, because these arrangements are so poorly understood – a legacy of the assumption of Labour’s architects of devolution that this was only a matter for the peripheries, and that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty remained blissfully unaltered by these changes. Ever since, parts of the centre have been psychologically unable or unwilling to see Whitehall as a part of the skein of networks and relationships that make up the UK’s governing system.

The absence of a coherent model of English devolution means that the central state is trying to do far too many things without the requisite knowledge and grasp of local circumstances – in education and health, most obviously. As the saga of its difficulties in setting up an adequate system of testing reveals, it is only when the centre consults and works with other parts of the governing system, particularly those authorities that have much greater knowledge of their localities, that it can achieve this kind of goal.

There is a recurrent, and growing, suggestion in some quarters that only a radical dispersal of power across Britain will solve the many problems of governance and policy facing the UK. And, some have depicted Germany’s more successful response to the pandemic as a reflection of its more decentralised system of administration.

There may be something to this, but localist arguments tend to overlook the enduring importance of the capacities, authority and coordinating functions of states, which mean that there are some tasks that only the centre can legitimately perform. Despite obvious flaws in its handling of key aspects of the crisis, in one respect the British state has proved highly effective in its response. At the behest of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the Treasury has stepped in to underwrite the UK’s economy and pay the wages of many of its citizens, and done so with remarkable speed and efficacy. This reminds us that a strategic and capable central authority will be badly needed to tackle the many imminent economic and social challenges. 

But the current crisis teaches us too that these cannot be managed by the centre alone. The unitary model of the British state has run its course, and a new understanding of its position and role within a much wider system of democratic governance is desperately needed.

Michael Kenny is director of the Institute of Public Policy at Cambridge University

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football