Opinion: whoever is prime minister must think twice about department changes

Written by Tim Durrant on 12 December 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Prime ministers often want to leave their mark on Whitehall, but there are good reasons to rage against machinery of government changes

Photo: PA

Choosing a tastefully pastel shade of Farrow and Ball. Lining up meetings with officials who are well-trained in the art of saying “yes, prime minister”. Dancing through corridors like Hugh Grant in Love Actually.

There are many temptations for any new – or returning – PM after a general election, but one is riskier than most.

The urge to take a red pen to the map of Whitehall and unveil a list of new departments is one which many occupants of No.10 find impossible to resist. This might be good news for fans of acronyms and is no doubt welcome news to the sign-engraving industry, but is it really a smart way to run the country?


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Where Tony Blair created the Department for International Development and Gordon Brown launched – among others – the Department for Energy and Climate Change, David Cameron resisted the temptation to restructure Whitehall. Theresa May, however, wasted no time in unveiling plans for three new departments. The Department for Exiting the European Union, the Department for International Trade, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (the creation of which saw the demise of DECC), were all launched when she moved into Downing Street.

While the hard work of the civil servants deployed to these new departments can’t be questioned, their scoresheet is decidedly mixed. DExEU, something of a “pop-up” department, was created to oversee the UK’s Brexit negotiations, but before long it became clear that the negotiations were actually overseen by No. 10 and the Cabinet Office. As Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK permanent representative in Brussels, told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, DExEU’s twin reporting lines – to its secretary of state and the prime minister – were “structurally bound” to be a mess. DIT, meanwhile, which was announced before Theresa May had confirmed her government’s intention was to leave the customs union, has been stunted by the UK’s inability to sign new trade deals until we have actually left.

“Creating a new department is a concrete way to demonstrate priorities, but it’s the easy part. Making policy is not”

These experiences might explain the absence of any new departmental visions in the Conservative Party manifesto. But while that omission might be welcome, it fails to address the question mark hanging over the future of DExEU. If a Conservative government completes the withdrawal process by the end of January, as it has pledged, then DExEU’s future looks uncertain – especially with No.10 likely to want to retain close control of any talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. And if, by the time you’re reading this, Labour has formed the next government, then the result of its planned referendum could make DExEU redundant overnight.

The creation of DExEU and DIT also helped to reward two of the leading pro-Brexit voices in the Conservative Party, with the departments handed to David Davis and Liam Fox respectively. Two decades earlier, Tony Blair created the sprawling Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in part to reward his ally John Prescott. It proved too unwieldy, however, and its component parts were relocated to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a recreated Department for Transport, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and, finally, the Department for Communities and Local Government. In a similar case of restructure-and-reward, in 2009 Gordon Brown did away with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – which he launched two years earlier – and handed the newly-created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to his key ally Lord Peter Mandelson.

Whether to reward a political ally, signalling a prime ministerial priority or genuinely attempting to reorganise Whitehall, launching a department is the easy part. Making policy is not. Any party seeking power will want to signal its priorities and highlight the areas of work that it wants to push to the forefront of its time in government. Creating a new department – such as DfID, DECC or DExEU – is, quite literally, a concrete way to demonstrate priorities.

But these plans should be carefully thought through. Restructuring means aligning IT systems and finding office space, which can cost around £15m for a medium-sized department. With no extra funding provided by the Treasury, officials will be forced to spend time searching for small sums of money rather than getting on with the work of government. And these costs are often outweighed by the drop in productivity which follows the formation of a new department, and which can last around two years. New departments need clear plans, and real powers, if they are to change policy.

It is very easy to announce the name of a new department, and just as easy for that department to become an expensive distraction from the problem it was designed to deal with. A prime minister should think carefully before embarking on one of the great temptations of power.

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Tim Durrant
About the author

Tim Durrant is an associate director at the Institute for Government. He previously worked at the Treasury and the Department for International Development. He tweets @timd_IFG

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