IfG: Whitehall restructures must be more focused

Written by Sarah Aston on 9 March 2015 in News

Institute for Government urges greater focus on collaboration and long-term planning

Future governments should minimise disruptive departmental restructures and strengthen Whitehall’s capacity to collaborate and prioritise, the Institute for Government (IfG) has said.

In its latest report, the IfG said that past attempts to restructure Whitehall had focused too much on “party-political” goals, and had done little to address Whitehall’s failure to prioritise long-term goals and cross-departmental working.

“When money is tight, there can be no justification for ill-thought-through restructuring that costs millions and helps no one,” said IfG’s director of research Tom Gash.

“The next government must seek genuine reform of Whitehall – and that doesn’t mean chopping and changing departments. It means dealing with Whitehall’s inability to focus on long-term priorities and its weaknesses in co-ordinating policy across departments.”

The report therefore calls for a review of Whitehall processes and procedures, and recommends a series of changes to incentivise collaboration and strategic thinking over huge structural changes to departments.

Recommendations include:

  • Reforming spending review processes to allow cross-departmental teams to develop service plans
  • Developing a performance management scheme that “drives strategic collaboration, not departmentalism”
  • Using cross-departmental goals, budgets and teams and deploying “joint ministers where cross-departmental collaboration is particularly important”
  • Developing and deploying specialist skills and capabilities on a more cross-departmental basis
  • Retaining and building on existing capacity around the prime minister

The report also calls for greater constraints on the prime minister’s ability to restructure departments, and says the prime minister should be required to produce a business case for change that is then scrutinised by select committees and parliament. 

Referring to the last Labour government’s decision to create the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in 2007 – which was then merged with another department just two years later – the report says that governments must take better care to consider the cost of changing department structures.

Ian Watmore, the former permanent secretary of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, welcomed the report.

“‘Machinery of government’ changes should only be considered when the end result is truly strategic; when the business case is compelling in the long term; and when the short- to medium-term dips in performance and increases in cost are properly understood," he said. “If all three of these are not in place then I would say: ‘No, think about it hard’; and then say ‘No’ again.”

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Geoff Russell (not verified)

Submitted on 9 March, 2015 - 21:56
As a former DIUS then BIS senior civil servant (with a private sector background) who ran large delivery bodies for two sponsor departments, I support the conclusions of the report. However, I have to say that a number of the recommendations have, in various forms, been tried before (e.g. HMT PSA targets in the 2008 Spending Review). That does not mean that efforts to promote cross departmental working should be abandoned, but I would make two points. The first is that the competitive fiefdoms that civil servants maintain in their departments stem mainly from the fact that each Secretary of State competes with their peers and their civil servants are obliged - and are promoted via - focusing on their own SoS's wishes and no one else's. So the accountabilities and incentives work strongly against cross-department sharing and until this is addressed, cooperation will always be forced. Second, while joint ministers and similar good ideas promoted by government can help, I believe it is the responsibility of the "permanent" civil service to take the long term view; governments have little incentive to do so. But to be a credible counter-balance to political short-termism requires the civil service to re-establish its reputation for competence in the full range of skills it needs in this highly complicated and fast changing world. So long as Ministers can continue to point to delivery disasters or failures to respond to change, they can take the moral high ground to justify fiddling with the wiring yet again. The civil service is a valuable national asset of talented and dedicated people - who desperately need leadership.

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