Dear prime minister: now is the time to reboot the centre of government

With the general election looming, Geoff Mulgan and Stian Westlake of the innovation think tank Nesta​ say any prime minister who wants to get things done needs to seriously consider changes to the centre of government

The last thing you’d expect to hear before a general election is to call to rethink the centre of government. In the depths of purdah, with politicians talking about grand narratives and eye-catching wheezes, the structure of Whitehall and the Cabinet might seem like a wonkish irrelevance.

This is dangerous mistake. The centre of government – the collection of organisations and teams around Number 10, the Cabinet Office and Treasury – matters. An effective centre helps the prime minister make good their promises to voters, and makes it less likely their government will be overwhelmed by events or derailed by blunders. Because it is an issue that has long been neglected in Britain, there are big opportunities to change things for the better, and to learn from other countries.

And the best time to make the kind of radical changes necessary is when a government is new, its political stock is high, and when both Whitehall and the public expect change. In order to make changes in a government’s early days, politicians need to be thinking about it now, not on May 8.

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A good centre of government should do a number of things. It should help the prime minister project power and control across the rest of government and the public services. It allows him or her to direct government’s three main resources - money, legislative power, and focus - to where they can have the most effect. It is an engine of legitimation, providing a platform to win support from parliament and amongst the public. And, more subtly, it should act as a central processor, taking in information from around the government and beyond, mulling it over and acting on it.

But the UK’s governmental centre does not always do them well. Downing Street has often struggled to align the public’s hearts and minds behind its goals – or even to have a clear conversation with the public about what those goals might be. It has been poor at making use of the right types of knowledge to make important decisions. Coordinating and aligning the sprawling government machine is a constant challenge, as is delegation –  Britain’s government is rightly accused of being too centralised. And its timing is often out: not only does it act slowly when it should act fast, but – perhaps worse – it acts fast when it should act slowly (for example with rapid implementation of poorly considered reforms).

A new, or re-elected, government should take a few decisive steps to fix these problems:

First of all, they should simplify ministerial roles and the Cabinet, which has grown so large as to be almost useless as a place to make decisions. The prime minister could look to (whisper it) Brussels for inspiration: the Juncker Commission has appointed several super-commissioners to oversee important policy priorities, a move which seems to be working well. By the same logic, the UK should have super-ministers with cross-departmental responsibility for important areas. Depending on who wins the election, their remits could include infrastructure (bringing together energy, transport, planning, communications), equality (with oversight of welfare, redistribution and social exclusion) or internal security (overseeing borders, policing, intelligence and immigration). This would ensure a clearer focus on the most important government priorities and cut through long-established silos.

The next big change a new government should make is to break up the Treasury. The Treasury has great responsibility: it is in charge of fiscal policy, government borrowing and economic growth, and acts as the government’s finance director to boot. This combination of important roles is rare: in the US, France, Germany, Australia and Canada, these powers do not reside in a single department. And, we would argue, it means that too many decisions are made through a narrowly financial lens. The post-war decline of British industry shows what happens when businesses are run by accountants and money-men: we should save government from the same fate. The Treasury’s budgetary powers could be moved to an enlarged Cabinet Office, its economic remit merged into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to create a genuine Department for Growth.

A third step is to learn from other governments around the world: not just national governments, but those of successful cities and regions. From the Barcelona Urban Lab to Boston’s Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics to Singapore’s PS21, governments are building new teams and technologies to improve their ability to come up with new ideas, to absorb and make the most of new technologies, to experiment rigorously to see what works, and to maintain a long-term vision.

The final priority for the centre of government is about rhythm and direction. The set-pieces of the British constitution give the prime minister few opportunities to set the agenda. The red-letter days of the British political calendar - the Queen’s Speech, the Budget, weekly prime minister's questions – are all in their own way unsatisfactory. With such a meagre range of set pieces, it is no wonder the management of the media and the Downing Street Grid has taken on such unhelpful importance.

Instead, the government should create new channels for setting a vision and engaging with the wider world. Adopting the American model of a State of the Union address – a regular setting-out of views and priorities, including but not limited to legislation – would be a start.

Legitimation also requires listening and discussing. Alongside an annual address, they should put in place regular means of discussing policies and strategies with the population as a whole. There are now many ways to do this, and parliaments and governments around Europe – such as the digitally advanced ones in Finland and Estonia – are experimenting with ways to orchestrate conversation with citizens that goes well beyond petition sites, or the stale formulae of public consultations. Early on, the PM should identify one or two of the most challenging issues – such as care for the elderly, or the relationship between children and the internet - as subjects for a more open dialogue, and pursue these.

Any would-be prime minister who wants to get things done must think seriously about these changes to the centre of government. And if they want to make headway on them, they need to start on day one. Which means that although the future of Whitehall won’t win hearts on the campaign trail, they need to be thinking about them now.




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