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13 March 2024

How to fix a broken Whitehall

We need a new Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to strengthen the centre of government.

By Sally Morgan

Working in government is a huge privilege. From domestic crises to international conflicts, as Tony Blair’s political secretary, and later as director of government relations, I experienced how decisions are made at the centre of power – and how policies and priorities are delivered.

Times have changed since New Labour, as have the challenges faced by government. Brexit and the pandemic strained the state and fundamentally changed what government does. And increasingly, the most pertinent political themes of our times – flatlining productivity, “levelling up”, intergenerational inequality – defy the departmental silos by which Whitehall has long organised itself.

But, as every prime minister knows, without the clarity and drive provided by the centre – No 10, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office – there is a risk that governments drift, focus wanes and process rather than delivery becomes paramount. And the truth is that the outdated structure and organisation of the centre of government has been letting down prime ministers for a long time.

This is why, for the past year, I’ve been one of 16 commissioners working with the Institute for Government’s Commission on the Centre of Government. We set out to understand how and why the centre of government is failing, and what to do about it.

The commission’s report, published earlier this week, lays out the problems with the centre. To name a few – it is not strategic, with governments consistently failing to clearly define their priorities; it is too controlling and resistant to outside input and expertise; and both No 10 and the Cabinet Office are confused and under-powered. Much of this rings true from my time in government.

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Even in the early 2000s it was clear that the Cabinet Office, for example, was unfocused, joined to yet separate from No 10, and its remit unclear – and yet it has continued to grow inexorably, and today has an even more jumbled assortment of functions. Frankly, I was staggered to hear of its size and amorphous role.

With the challenges facing the UK only becoming more serious, it is clear that the status quo is not good enough. The problems of climate change, economic inactivity, educational inequality and improving devolution will not wait for the structures of Whitehall to catch up. The report makes several important recommendations for change.

First, it is time to dispose of the outdated split between No 10 and the Cabinet Office, which only causes confusion over roles, responsibilities and reporting lines. We need to merge the former with the parts of the latter that work for the prime minister, creating a new, modern Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC). This should exist alongside a separate Department for the Civil Service, taking on the roles the Cabinet Office currently plays in civil service reform.

A Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet would bring together all of the prime minister’s core support functions, ending the current convenient fiction that the Cabinet Office is a separate department. It should be small but strong – properly responsive to the prime minister’s needs, but delegating all else that can be done in departments.

Second, the chronic inability of Whitehall departments to collaborate effectively – which will only become more important as complex challenges multiply – must be tackled. The commission has proposed a radical overhaul of how governments define and deliver their top priorities, many of which cut across several government departments. A new government should, early in a new parliamentary term, produce a Priorities for Government document – setting out clearly what the government is seeking to do, how, and which ministers are responsible for delivery.

This refreshed approach should be combined with a reformed Spending Review process. Departments should be required to submit jointly developed spending bids, aligned to the Priorities for Government, to the Treasury and DPMC. This could finally solve the problem of departments’ inability to work together on complex challenges. And delivery of the priorities – and ensuring that spending allocations are aligned to them – should be driven by a small, powerful executive committee of the cabinet, convened by the prime minister. Reflecting the long-standing reality that the full cabinet is ineffective as a decision-making assembly, such a committee should become the forum for the key strategic decisions that the government needs to take.

Finally – and most importantly for me – we must recognise that structural changes to the centre will solve little if we do not have the right skills and expertise in the right places. Interchange between the civil service and outside world, to bring new skills and perspectives into government, is vital. My former No 10 colleague, Jonathan Powell, told the commission that the civil service has a “monastic culture” in which people “join at 21 and leave at 65”. This must change – especially through increased interchange between the centre and the private sector and academia – to ensure prime ministers have sufficient access to people with crucial skills in data and technology.

We should also recognise that people do not need to be employed by government to contribute their expertise – the centre of government needs to become less guarded and resistant to external input. That is why the commission has also recommended that cabinet committees should be able to draw on the expertise of newly established, permanent advisory groups when making strategic decisions. Maybe this needs to go further.

These reforms – a strong new Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, a new approach to priority-setting and cross-government collaboration, and an influx of new skills – will not be easy. But they are essential if government is to better deliver for the public. Complaining about what doesn’t work and responding with piecemeal changes won’t fix the problem. Whoever is prime minister after this year’s election should implement our commission’s recommendations without delay.

[See also: How will Starmer run No 10?]

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