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9 July 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:44am

Yes, Prime Minister: why the civil service must give PMs room for long-term thinking

The capacity for longer-term, cross-cutting policy development has to be part of the core offer the Cabinet Secretary makes to an incoming prime minister.

By Jill Rutter

The last thing prime ministers think about when they cross the threshold of Downing Street is the need to think longer term. After all, they enter with a manifesto full of ideas that they have been waiting months and years to implement.  They need to crack on with appointing their cabinet and rafts of junior ministers, and starting to translate those promises into action.

As the Institute for Government’s new report, Centre Forward, recounts, David Cameron was offered the use of the Blair/Brown strategy unit when he came to office – but had no issues for it to work on. After six months it was formally disbanded.  

But the need to support longer-term and cross-cutting thinking does not go away. A review of horizon-scanning in government by chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee Sir Jon Day in 2013 has led to the establishment of a small central function reporting to the Cabinet Secretary overseen by Oliver Letwin. And the Cabinet Secretary himself has been asked to review policy on youth unemployment which would have been natural strategy unit territory. 

Our report argues that the capacity for longer-term, cross-cutting policy development has to be part of the core offer the Cabinet Secretary makes to an incoming prime minister. Tony Blair was not offered people to work for him on his priorities when he took office in 1997, and ended up inventing his own units – first the secretive John Birt Forward Strategy Unit in No 10 and then the much (and eventually much, much) larger Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.  

But the fact that these units were set up in rival to the core machine, rather than as part of it, diminished their effectiveness. Several former strategy unit members we interviewed for our report felt much of their work was ultimately wasted: “I’ve seen loads of things I’ve done which I’m proud of doing, where if the civil service really wanted it to achieve something [it] should never have allowed me to move on to the next strategy unit project… All my things ended up in departments, dead as dodos.”  Longer-term capacity combined with the more active role we see for Cabinet Office secretariats – to help prime ministers develop and implement policy – would help the outputs from such thinking get more traction with departments.

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Of course, a dedicated unit is only one way to supply this capacity to prime ministers. Arguably the most successful piece of long-term policy development under the Labour government was the Turner Commission on pensions. But as with all such commissions in the UK government, there is no standing capacity to set them up – each has to be created from scratch. In Australia, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has the capacity to convene and service task forces. Our Cabinet Office should have the same.

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There are other capacities that a prime minister also should expect from day one  – day-to-day policy advice, the ability to chase progress on key priorities and create “change units” to challenge the status quo.  One of the reasons our system fails to meet prime ministerial needs better is that the Cabinet Office is caught in an existential dilemma – does it serve the prime minister or the cabinet as a whole?  No such identity crisis affects the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, nor the quaintly named Privy Council Office in Canada.  The prime minister has a big job to do for which nothing is adequate preparation – and should expect to be able to call on the capacity to support them in that role.

Jill Rutter works at the Institute for Government and is a former civil servant