Divided we fall: time to strengthen Britain’s centre of government

A proposal to create a prime ministerial department would provide a central organisation at the heart of government to ensure policies get delivered, says two-time perm sec Sir Suma Chakrabarti
Sir Suma Chakrabarti Photo Alamy

By Suma Chakrabarti

19 Jul 2021

I strongly endorse the proposals for reform of UK government in last week’s report of the Commission for Smart Government, of which I am very pleased to have been a member. The proposals set out to address the key issues of strategy, capability, innovation and accountability, which are vital to success these days for government, as for the corporate world.

A particularly important proposal is to reshape the centre of government into a powerful Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, drawing together the current prime minister’s office, Cabinet Office and the part of the Treasury which plans and manages public spending. Organisational change is often seen as distraction, ‘shifting the deckchairs’, sometimes correctly. It should certainly be a means to an end, not a solution for its own sake. In this case, however, based on my many years of experience working in the civil service, in the Treasury, Cabinet Office and other departments, it is absolutely vital.

Government can only work if it is focused on the things which matter most, it has plans which are properly defined, and it draws together the work of the whole complex government machine – not just at the national level but at local level too. It’s no good just exhorting the prime minister and his ministerial colleagues to do these things. We need to put in place an organisation at the heart of government which supports them. The current confusing and divided structure cannot do that.

The new approach is not about strengthening a particular prime minister. The whole of government would benefit, because the centre would be firing on all cylinders to support the government, and the whole public service, to deliver its goals.

Our proposals would create a central department with three clearly defined components. One would be the prime minister’s personal office. The second would look after strategy, delivery and resources. It would define the key objectives which the government is trying to achieve, which inevitably are now cross-cutting, embody them in a plan for government, backed with resource allocation which is likewise cross-cutting, and make sure they get delivered, intervening to put them back on track where needed.

The third component would be a strong Office of Public Service Effectiveness led by a powerful secretary of state to bring about the improvement in capability which is needed across the government machine. In particular, we need to build the skills which all players in government, ministers as well as civil servants, need to be effective. That requires both a more ambitious and effective approach to training, and the ability to bring in people from outside the machine. As well as bringing external talent into the civil service, we suggest the prime minister should be able to appoint, on a limited scale, people who are not MPs or Lords as ministers where particular expertise is required.

Departments also need to work more effectively. Let me mention two of our proposals. First, the top civil service role needs to become consistently about helping to define strategy, executing that strategy – which increasingly requires working in teams with other leaders – and focusing on the operational effectiveness of departments. That is why our proposal to rename the permanent secretary role as ‘chief executive’ is not a gimmick, but an important description of what the role should be about. Second, I am really pleased that the commission is suggesting putting in place a consistent, public, assessment of whether departments have the capability to deliver on government’s chosen outcomes – a bit like the capability reviews of 10-15 years ago, but on steroids.

I believe our package is very rounded. There is something about structural change, but with a purpose, not because it sounds good. We propose new ways of including financial planning to help turn intention into practice. And there is a strong emphasis on skills, especially the leadership and management skills those at the top of the system, ministers and civil servants, need to make government a success. I hope the government takes them seriously.

Sir Suma Chakrabarti is Chair of the think tank ODI, and previously President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Permanent Secretary of the Department for International Development and Ministry of Justice

Share this page