Those seeking to follow the star of the newly returned government over the Christmas break will have read – no doubt on the basis of well-informed speculation – of its apparent intention to re-shape the structure of government; not just by shutting down the Department for Exiting the European Union but also, supposedly, in intending, amongst other possible changes, to roll the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to create a new “Department for the North” to deliver on the campaign promises to every voter north of Watford.
But I wonder how many people in government, as they heard this speculation, will have remembered the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (or DIUS as it came to be called) which may well hold the record for the shortest-lived ever government department? Announced with a flourish by the then new prime minister, Gordon Brown, on his first full day in office on 28 June 2007 it lasted just two years until, in June 2009, it was merged into the newly formed Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which was itself to be disbanded in 2016.
The new DIUS, in the words of Gordon Brown to the House of Commons, would deliver the “government’s vision to make Britain a world leading nation for science, research and innovation”. There appears to have been no prime ministerial obituary, however, when the department was unceremoniously killed off just two years later. In the words of one commentator at the time, “it had a difficult start, a short life and an ignominious ending”. Despite requests by parliamentary select committees, no official estimate was ever forthcoming about the cost of its establishment and demise – though one estimate at the time put the total at around £9m.
None of this is to say that so-called machinery of government changes are never justified. The world changes, and so must government. There can also be genuine and powerful policy reasons for altering structures. The creation of Jobcentre Plus in the early 2000s as a merger of the formerly separate Employment Service and the then Benefits Agency had the clear rationale that, for those of working age, it was desired that benefits should henceforth be seen as a means to an end – that of gaining work – rather than as an end in themselves, and hence should be administered by a single organisation with support for job finding at its heart. Twenty years on that merger has stood the test of time.
But, as the DIUS example shows, such changes should not be made on a whim, or as part of some vanity project designed to create the illusion of action in the next day’s headlines. That is not least because the true costs of such changes tend always to be underestimated.
Those costs merely start with the more measurable expense of creating a new department – everything from acquiring a headquarters building to designing and installing the new signage and printing the new visiting cards. Much less measurable, but every bit as real, are the intangible costs of time-consuming debate on everything from agreeing the new department’s strategic objectives to allocating its parking spaces. And then there are, of course, the people issues. Almost never do the staff of the former departments fit neatly into the new structures. So, there is room for endless argument about who is going to go where, on what terms and conditions and with what promises or commitments about their future career opportunities.
No wonder that, for a year or more, such issues tend to dominate the new department’s agenda to the near total exclusion of what it has actually been set up to do. In the case of DIUS it is doubtful whether closure on many of them had been reached by the time the departmental merry-go-round started up again and DIUS became history.
So the message, I think, for this and every government is not that you should never go down this road; there will be occasions when it is both justified and necessary. But it is that you should never embark on such changes lightly, and that you should certainly never do so simply in order to pad out the press notice and fill the airwaves. Only if the case is overwhelming is it likely to be worth the cost, the disruption and the loss of focus which will result. It would almost certainly be both better and cheaper to print “remember DIUS” at the top of every paper on possible machinery of government changes that makes its way round Whitehall.