Cabinet secretary and civil service COO ‘need more power’, think tank says

Institute for Government argues Whitehall also requires a strong new central delivery unit
Cabinet secretary Simon Case (left) with the prime minister, Boris Johnson. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

22 Jan 2021

Ministers should give the cabinet secretary and civil service chief operating officer more responsibility for ensuring officials deliver on the government’s policy objectives, according to the Institute for Government.

A new report from the think tank says the move should form part of measures to make the centre of government – principally the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister’s Office, and HM Treasury – more effective. It follows the appointment last week of Sir Michael Barber to lead a review into ways departments can make the delivery of projects and programmes more “focused, effective and efficient”.

The IfG report – titled Heart of the Problem – argues that government in the UK is being undermined by a centre that is “too weak” and proposes a four-strand approach as a “contribution” to Barber’s review.

Giving the cabinet secretary and COO – currently Simon Case and Alex Chisholm, respectively – more responsibility for running the civil service is one of the four proposals, increasing their authority over functions providing cross-cutting services, such as finance, digital and human resources.

The report said that whatever their home department, functions must have a direct line into the head of function, based in the Cabinet Office,  who would report to the cabinet secretary through the chief operating officer.

It said such a chain of command would mean that where the cabinet signed off on a change across any of the different functional areas, the cabinet secretary and COO would be able to direct it to happen, and be held accountable for its delivery.

The greater degree of operational control proposed for the nation’s top two civil servants would fit with the IfG’s three other proposals:  a strengthened role for the Cabinet Office in agreeing the government’s policy programme; the early-stage agreement of “a small number of top cross-cutting priorities” to be led by teams based in the Cabinet Office; and the creation of a “strong central delivery unit” to support the work.

Report author Alex Thomas, a programme director at the IfG, said holding departments to account for their performance had been the weakest part of the centre in recent years.

He said former prime minister David Cameron’s decision to abolish the New Labour-era delivery unit in the Cabinet Office had never been fully reversed. However, he acknowledged that staff in the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit had “done their best to plug the gap” while working in an “unclear and under-powered structure”. 

Thomas said it was a “core role” of No.10 and the Cabinet Office to set a coherent programme for the government and then hold departments to account for delivering it.

“Both functions are currently too weak,” he said. “That does not mean sidelining departments from policymaking, or running everything from the centre, but it does require sustained political and administrative focus from No.10 and the Cabinet Office.”

Thomas, who had a civil service career that included stints at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health before he joined the IfG, said boosting the centre of government should be “enabling not disabling”.

“This government has shown signs of creating the worst of all worlds where, with weak ministers and a cowed civil service, a dominant centre disempowers and clogs up activity,” he said.

“Instead, the government should prioritise creating an effective Cabinet Office, supporting a small but powerful No.10.”

Thomas said the Cabinet Office and No.10 – and to some extent the Treasury – needed to focus on setting priorities, allocating and reallocating resources and mobilising departments, giving consistent and coherent messaging, and looking ahead to spot and troubleshoot problems.

He added that other vital work included quality-assuring policies and delivery plans, to find gaps and inconsistencies in the government’s programme; acting as a broker and adjudicating disputes; and determininng a common evidence base.

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