'We want to equip government to deliver better': IfG director sets out vision for think tank's future

Dr Hannah White, the director of the Institute for Government, offers her expert view on the current state of the civil service
IfG director Hannah White. Photo: IfG

By Jess Bowie

25 May 2023

When Dr Hannah White OBE was announced as director of the Institute for Government in November 2022, few Whitehall and Westminster watchers were surprised.

The former secretary to the Committee on Standards in Public Life had been acting up in the role since the previous August, and served as deputy director for four years prior to that. 

White brings extensive experience in the very heart of British political life. She started her career as a parliamentary clerk in the House of Commons and joined the IfG in 2014 to lead its research about parliament. She is a go-to expert on constitutional affairs and her first book, Held in Contempt: What’s Wrong with the House of Commons? came out last year. 

Congratulations on being appointed as the IfG’s director. How would you describe the leadership style you bring to the role? 

The institute is a vital organisation, playing a role like no other in informing the way the government operates. Over the last 12 years, we’ve built a brilliant team. We’re at our best when all those people are enabled to do their jobs successfully, so I want to give them the space and encouragement to do so. One of the best bits of feedback I heard during last year’s party conferences was that IfG events were always chaired by a subject-matter expert. Many think tanks rely on the director to front everything, but we give all our staff a chance to shine. I want to maintain this as our norm. I will provide direction and strategic advice and be a figurehead. But I’ll give our people the licence to be brilliant, because that’s exactly what they are.

How do you believe the IfG has evolved since forming in 2008?

Like any start-up organisation, we’ve expanded and professionalised. We’ve developed new functions and grown our profile across Westminster and Whitehall. We have grown and professionalised our communications and events, for example, so our ability to do interesting, important research is matched by our ability to tell the world about it. We’ve also developed our partnerships function, meaning we’re better at finding other people who are interested in our work and developing programmes together. I think we have changed in terms of people’s perception of us, and therefore the impact we’re able to have. 

Brexit was a big stepchange for us. We felt that an important part of helping government do its job well was helping everyone to understand the Brexit process. We became experts on the topic, with a high profile in the media. As a result, we became less focused on the long research reports that had defined our work until that point. When we need to, we can be much fleeter of foot, creating outputs that are shorter and more digestible. So our model of impact has changed. In the early days of the institute, we focused on talking to the few people in Whitehall who can make decisions about the things we thought ought to be different. But we realised through the Brexit experience that, if you gain influence by building a wider audience, then those people in Whitehall have more of a reason to listen. 

Where do you want to take the IfG during your time as director?

I want to make sure we focus on the issues that have always been at the heart of the institute’s activity.  Our primary concerns are: how to make the civil service work really well; how to reform the civil service; how to make policymaking effective and evidence-based; how to bring the best talent into the civil service; and how to help civil servants become more specialist and less generalist. 

We’ve always been interested in devolution, too. It’s great that politicians across the political divide have caught up with this, either through the Tories’ Levelling Up agenda or through Labour’s “take back control” narrative. It’s important to me that the institute is not just a research organisation and I don’t want our impact to be felt only through publications. We’re trying to help people involved in the work of government think about problems. We need to build and nurture relationships with officials and ministers, so they want to have a conversation with us about these issues and so we’re well-placed to influence their decisions and policies.

How do you want the IfG to work with ministers?

I would like us to do more in this area, particularly helping new ministers develop their skills. When I worked on select committees, members were reluctant to admit they needed any professional development. But it is now considered completely normal for members to come to the IfG for an away day and reflect on how to maximise their impact, or to get tips on how to ask questions. There’s a perception as a committee that you ought to invest in yourselves to be effective – which is an encouraging change. I think we can do the same for ministers, because it’s clearly ridiculous to expect someone to do a job as difficult and unique as this with no support or input. These are the most important jobs in the country. These people are making decisions on our behalf. 

We have already started to see a bit of a change. Ministers who come in with corporate experience think it’s normal to seek professional development in a new role. Take someone like Gillian Keegan, for example. She worked with us as a junior minister and has said publicly she doesn’t think she’d be a secretary of state without having worked with the IfG during her journey. We have a huge repository of experience in our Ministers Reflect interviews, which are available online. We hold the institutional memory that helps serving ministers learn from their predecessors. Drawing on this and our wider expertise, we can help ministers think about their roles and offer advice on practical matters like setting up and running their private office. A key means of providing this support is through the IfG Academy. 

What is the IfG Academy?

Through the IfG Academy, we want to be more proactive in supporting ministers and officials. In the past, such people have tended to come to us with their issues or challenges. Now, we will go to them to offer training, mentoring and advice. We have three strands of work. One is to work with ministers and the people with whom they interact, such as their departmental teams and private offices. One is to work with people outside government, such as academics, who want to understand how government operates and feed into policy discussions. Unlike our work with the public sector, we charge for this activity, which helps broaden our financial base. The third strand is the preparation for government work that we have always done with opposition parties before general elections, helping them think through the practicalities of transition if they end up running the country. 

What would you most like to change about the civil service?

The first thing would have to be staff churn. We need to address the incentives, including pay, that make civil servants feel they need breadth, rather than depth, of experience to thrive. We need more specialists in our civil service. Of course, churn is linked to political churn and we’ve had a lot of turbulence in that regard over recent years. We’re now facing another big change to the machinery of government after the most recent cabinet reshuffle, and that heightens the challenge for officials – not least because the timescale for new policy initiatives before the next election is tight. 

My second change would be to the effectiveness of the centre of government. We have seen with all the crises since 2016 – Brexit, Covid, and so on – that the very heart of government doesn’t always work well. The ability of the prime minister to set priorities, to articulate them to government, and then to hold ministers and their departments to account for delivering them is just not up to scratch. This year, the institute is launching a major Commission on the Centre of Government to think about improving the effectiveness of Number 10, the Cabinet Office, and the Treasury. The hope is to equip the centre of government to deliver better for the PM.

Why is putting the civil service on a statutory footing important?

There can be a confusion of accountabilities and responsibilities at the centre of government and, to some extent, this has fed into some of the tensions between ministers and civil servants over many of the challenges the government has grappled with since 2016. When it becomes the instant response of ministers – who are being held to account for something that has gone wrong – to blame the civil service, that’s very bad for morale. If you have a statute for the civil service, you have a clearly articulated understanding of the job of the civil servant and their relationship to the minister. You also have clear structures to hold both to account. If we followed the example of local government, or places like New Zealand, in having greater visibility of the role of officials in shaping policy, that would make a huge difference. It would also reinforce the impartiality of the civil service.  

What do you think is going well in the civil service at the moment? 

There are good examples of innovation and things that were done during the pandemic that were very positive. For instance, the speed with which HMRC moved to enable some of the support payments, and of course the Vaccine Taskforce, which is often cited as evidence of the civil service at its best. I also think the Places For Growth programme is going in the right direction. The Darlington Campus is a positive story about moving civil servants out of London. It’s happening in a meaningful way rather than the tokenistic efforts of the past. 

With the appointment of Sir Laurie Magnus as the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, are you optimistic that standards are moving in the right direction? 

I think it is a very good thing that Sir Laurie has been appointed after a period without an adviser. It was good that the inquiry into Nadhim Zahawi was conducted rapidly and that there was a clear letter which was published in full quickly. These are things we’ve not seen in the recent past and they’re a stepchange in the way the new PM is using the system. That said, he’s chosen not to strengthen the powers of the adviser to enable them to launch their own inquiries and publish their own reports. That was a missed opportunity.  

What is the IfG’s position on hybrid working? Is it positive or detrimental for the civil service?

The world of work has changed. That is a reality and the civil service needs to reflect on what it can offer to attract the brightest and best people. It isn’t going to compete on pay, especially at the moment, so what other benefits are available? Hybrid working is a viable option for many roles, provided you have the right IT in place. Here at the IfG, we proved during the pandemic it is perfectly possible to run a think tank entirely remotely. But the reality is that you can do it even better if you have face-to-face contact with people. So we have a base in London, but offer flexibility to our team.

Finally, how do you unwind?

I recently moved from London to Brighton so I’m enjoying the South Downs and the beach. I have three youngish children (they’re 12, nine and five), who keep me busy in my spare time. We’ve just rationalised all our TV subscriptions. I think the last thing I watched was the fascinating BBC documentary on Putin and, although I’m primarily a fiction person, I’ve enjoyed reading Vaxxers and The Long Shot back-to-back, getting both sides of the Covid-19 vaccine story. My last novel was The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré – passed on by my mum who is a voracious reader and a very useful source of recommendations! 

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