Opinion: How does Boris Johnson plan to reform government without Dominic Cummings?

The government has set out some plans to change how the British state works, but has not yet developed a plan for delivering it. Colin Talbot looks at what is missing
Dominic Cummings leaves No.10 Photo: Alamy

By Colin Talbot

04 Oct 2021

For half a century or so most incoming British governments have had some sort of policy, plan or idea about how they think the government itself should be changed.

Sometimes these were very deliberate and spelt out in policy documents and speeches in advance. Sometimes they were more emergent strategies that could be discerned by watching carefully what they did in office. More often they were a mixture of both. But you could usually see more or less what the strategy was.

Not so the Johnson government. It’s hard to work out what, if any, strategy for government reform they have.

At first it seemed their strategy was based on the various signals sent out by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s eccentric chief adviser from July 2019 until December 2020. These seemed to centre around a series of long-standing (but unacknowledged) ideas dating back to the 1960s heyday of corporate planning and the technological revolution.

Robert McNamara, US secretary of state for defense from 1961 to 1968, was the high priest of centralised strategic planning and harnessing science and technology in business and government. He championed both NASA and DARPA, two US federal agencies that seem to be much admired by Cummings.

Indeed, before he was sacked Cummings had started construction of a NASA-style Mission Control room in 70 Whitehall.

This was not the first – but was probably the most extreme – version of trying to create a centralised ‘brain’ for government, centred on No.10 and the Cabinet Office. The Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS 1971-1983), and the somewhat less ambitious Centre for Management and Policy Studies (CMPS 1999-2005), are other examples.

One other key clue to where the Johnson government was heading on government reform came in a speech given by Michael Gove in June 2020. In his somewhat rambling lecture on The Privilege of Public Service, Gove – then the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in charge of the Cabinet Office, who has since been moved to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – does not mention the Cummings ‘control room’ at all, even though it was being constructed as he spoke.

Gove’s speech seemed to be heading off in a very different direction to Cummings NASA-style command centre. There was much talk about better use of data, science and scientists in government – a common Cummings theme – and also much mention of distributing government around the UK. By which he meant dispersing policy-making hubs out of Whitehall and relocating them in other, far-flung, parts of the UK (including, controversially, in the devolved parts).

By June 2021 all mention of the control centre had disappeared. (It would be interesting to know what happened to the actual centre – and how much it cost?)

Instead the prime minister and cabinet secretary published (very quietly) a grandly titled Declaration on Government Reform – agreed by both cabinet and the permanent secretaries. (See my first reaction to that here).

Many of the themes of the declaration echo sentiments expressed in Gove’s speech given a year earlier.

These include the more promises to disperse government to the four corners of the UK, and it aims to bring in a more diverse range of skills and knowledge and to (re)create a “new physical campus” for civil service training. (For those with short memories, we had one of those at Sunningdale (from 1970 to 2012) until it was closed down by the coalition government).

In the section on ‘performance’ it reinvents the system of departmental plans and targets introduced by the first New Labour government. And promises a new evaluation task force – although without any detail of what it is or will do. (There is already a ‘prime minister’s delivery unit – also resurrected from New Labour times.)

The final section on ‘partnerships’ deals mainly with relations between senior civil servants and ministers, although there is a brief mention to the world outside the Whitehall village.

Of course there have been other, major, changes to the ‘machinery of government’ besides what has happened at the centre. Some have been brought about by Brexit, some by Covid (the creation of the so-called “NHS” Test & Trace mega-neo-quango), and some by other policy priorities (like merging international development into the Foreign Office).

It is worth asking why all attempts to create a single directing mind at the centre of government have always eventually failed.

I would suggest two reasons, which are evident in both the Gove’s public service speech and the declaration.

The first is simple: HM Treasury. There is no ‘centre’ to British government – there are at least two, arguably three. The first and most powerful is obviously No.10 – the prime minister’s office. The second, and probably least powerful, is the Cabinet Office, which is separate from No.10, although this is not always obvious. The third, and very powerful, actor is the Treasury.

There is no discussion of how to reform these crucial relationships – and while this ‘three body problem’ remains at the heart of government there can be no ‘directing mind’, even of just Whitehall.

The second problem is that ‘government’ in the UK is now – more than ever – much more than just the Whitehall village. Ninety percent of public employees are not civil servants. Large parts of ‘government’ are run by other tiers of government (devolved and local) or by a variety of arms-length bodies. Again, reading Gove’s speech or the ‘Declaration’ you would not really understand this is the case. Neither seem to ‘get it’ that Whitehall doesn’t know best, it barely knows anything at all about this wider world of government and public service.

Maybe, in the post Cummings and, following his move to a new department to lead on levelling up, post-Gove era, a serious and clear strategy for reforming government will eventually emerge from new Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay and others. But there certainly is not one yet.

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