Cross-government working is not a nice to have – a paradigm shift is long overdue

The Treasury and Cabinet Office must wield their influence to remove any remaining barriers to departments working in harmony
Photo: Adobe Stock

By Meg Hillier

13 Feb 2024

The phrase ‘levers of government’ is well-worn, in both policymaking and delivery. It calls to mind government as a coherent machine – one with levers which ministers pull, setting off an intricate system of cause and effect with predictable, swift results in distant parts of Whitehall.

While departments can meet some objectives by working alone, many of Government’s most important priorities – the so-called wicked issues – such as net zero, rough sleeping, vulnerable families and adult social care – cut across policy areas and need a well-oiled whole-system response.

The Public Accounts Committee which I chair has just published a report looking at this very issue. Time and again in our scrutiny we see important programmes being held back due to a lack of effective cross-government working.

The most common barrier to departments collaborating in this way is data. Part of this is structural; poor quality data, be it in housing, the criminal justice system, transport infrastructure or procurement, sadly runs through the findings of our committee’s scrutiny as through a stick of rock.

Whitehall’s systems are complex and inconsistent, and departments must be supported to identify and collect the right data. Our inquiry heard that there are around 205 core systems that run HR, finance and payroll across government, with over 600 other systems working in support of those.

The challenge is significant. There are around 13 different ways of recording your address and this makes data matching and data sharing challenging. With more complex issues which require a human judgement this can make matters even more complicated.

But part of the difficulty is attitudinal – our report notes government’s own findings that while many feel that technical issues are obstacles to data sharing, two-thirds of departmental practitioners in 2022 saw departments’ own unwillingness to share data as a major barrier.

This is not for want of some central attempts to encourage departmental cooperation. To its credit, the Treasury has developed guidance to encourage departments to come forward with joint funding bids. But our report found that there were only 28 such bids at the last Spending Review.

A good advert for cross-government working is the Joint Combatting Drugs Unit (JCDU). With a single point of ownership at both ministerial and civil service level, the unit has seen coordination improve across six different departments. There is still a long way to go to maintain this cooperation and deliver but the early indicators are good.

For many projects coordination and collaboration between national and local government is also key.

Clearly, a paradigm shift is overdue. Cross-government working should not be viewed as a nice-to-have. We’re suggesting that Treasury truly bake it in to delivery by only approving business cases for programmes that clearly demonstrate a link to a relevant cross-cutting aim.

Another barrier to joint bids is whether permanent secretaries are recognised for delivering outcomes across multiple departments. Effective cross-government working will require buy-in from senior leaders, and this will not be forthcoming if the requisite kudos is not awarded for doing so.

Part of why this is so important to get right is government’s responsibility towards transparency. Our inquiry found that cross-cutting outcomes are not consistently reported, with a lack of clarity on which departments are involved in delivering them.

Civil service and political success is still measured on narrow outcomes rather than long-term improvements on complex issues. A focus on reward for longer term results would encourage longer term, joined up working.

Citizens must be able to track clear lines of accountability on how government is tackling issues such as obesity or drugs policies. Of the government’s 76 priority outcomes, 20 cut across departments, but these will only be produced internally for 2023-24. Clearly, these should be published.

The government appears to understand the main obstacles to cross-government working. Examples such as the JCDU also light the way, but it’s only one example of many different models of departments working together. The Treasury must now analyse which approach works best.

Departmental focuses and priorities will of course always rightly exist, but the Treasury and Cabinet Office must now use their influence to bring any barriers that remain to the government working in harmony with itself. And politicians need to be bold enough to give away power or share responsibility.

Share this page