Andrew Greenway: Civil servants should prepare for another round of Whitehall reorganisations

Written by Andrew Greenway on 3 June 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

As Tory hopefuls set out their stall for the role of PM, the civil service had better prepare for deckchair shuffling and another round of pointless departmental name changes

Photo: Photo: Dods Media Library / Louise Haywood-Schiefer

As another quiet month in British politics draws to a close, thoughts inevitably turn to the question on the nation’s lips: how will BEIS be renamed this time? 

With Theresa May working out her reasonably long prime ministerial gardening leave (and it’s a good time of year to resign, gardening-wise), one could assume her remaining time in Downing Street will be spent polishing up her Industrial Strategy. After all, she did doggedly reference it from the podium before her resignation remarks wobbled.

Whether or not one thinks it is wise to set out a national Industrial Strategy – or to be precise, write an extremely long document with no actions in it that has Industrial Strategy written on the cover – it is now moot. The Industrial Strategy was May’s closest stab at a flagship domestic policy that wasn’t entirely Brexit-related. It’s unlikely that any last rites will be read publicly, but it feels like an appropriate time to adopt a respectful air and remove one’s hat.


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In spite of Mrs May’s premiership being a period of singular inactivity when it comes to legislation or tangible delivery, her time at the top has had left a surprisingly deep footprint on the nomenclature of government. DIT and DExEU are both darling buds of May. BEIS, DCMS (it has a silent – very silent – “digital”, remember), MHCLG and DHSC have all acquired more letters in the last three years, in a textbook demonstration of a centuries-old civil service tactic: make the title as radical as possible, allowing one to leave the main body pretty much the same. Of all the Whitehall fiefdoms that historically have taken a Prince-like pleasure in changing their names for the sheer hell of it, only Defra and DfE have not bothered recently. In the case of DfE, it’s because nobody has paid any attention to the department since 2016. Defra, meanwhile, has had rather a lot else on.

It’s almost certain that whoever rocks up next in the rather dowdy AirBnB letting on Downing Street will be in the mood for more deckchair shuffling. Reshuffles offer opportunities for procrastination and political patronage.

With a spending review in the offing, there may actually never be a riper moment for the creation of new departments in name. The Treasury is surely likely to be even more parsimonious than usual. Brexit uncertainty is the gift that keeps on giving in this respect. HMT also enjoys the whip hand of pointing out that many departments and central teams have been unable to achieve much with the money they got last time out. Clawing that back should be easy. But even allowing for that and the inevitable VAT hike on milkshakes – very important for any new leader to appeal to the right of the Conservative party – this is unlikely to cover the expected fiscal gap. The good news is that new names for old things cost nothing.

Of course, this is assuming there are any creative impulses at all in the new administration, which may be quite the leap. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see any of the current Conservative leadership front-runners pushing for an Argentina or Portugal-style Ministry of Modernisation. Unfortunately, what the civil service seems more likely to experience are destructive impulses. These may arrive with little thought about what comes next; a form of political incontinence that has become an amazingly popular position across a whole range of issues. 

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to see any of the current Conservative leadership front-runners pushing for a Portugal-style Ministry of Modernisation”

Some candidates have foreshadowed this – the angry toddler throwing food around a Toby Carvery approach – already. Dominic Raab’s bold search for Whitehall efficiencies can obviously start with the business department’s business card providers; there is, clearly, very little point bothering to get new sets printed up quite so often. On first glance, Raab’s apparent enthusiasm for lopping bits off Whitehall resembles the misplaced fervour experienced by beginner gardeners. If you rip it all out when you don’t know the difference between weeds and really quite expensive plants, you’re none the wiser. Even better, you feel terribly productive. Given Raab’s CV and desperate keenness to be a Man of Action, I would be getting a little nervous if I were working in DExEU.

As a summer of even more distracted politicians than usual beckons, the civil service will have plenty of time to get on with those chores that fall to the very bottom of the to-do list. In preparation for the autumn, one of those might be polishing its reorg boots once again.

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Andrew Greenway
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Andrew Greenway is a consultant and co-author of the book Bluffocracy

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