Opinion: net zero should be the test case for civil service reforms

A stronger centre, more engineering capability, and a sharper focus on delivery should all be on the checklist for the government’s climate change mission, argues Tom Sasse
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By Tom Sasse

15 Sep 2020

The government sees civil service reform as critical to the success of its wider agenda, from fighting coronavirus to Brexit to levelling up. The prime minister, his chief adviser, and senior ministers have identified problems including a weak centre and patchy civil service skills.

Much of their diagnosis is widely shared – including by the Institute for Government. But, as our new report argues, there is another big, urgent priority in their in-tray that is perfectly suited to be a test case for the more effective civil service they want to see: net zero.

A mission for a stronger centre

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on what the prime minister sees as the weakness of the centre of government. “Boris is sick of pulling on levers and finding that nothing happens,” a source told the Times at the weekend. Dominic Cummings, the PM’s top aide, has reportedly called the Cabinet Office “incoherent”, while an ally imaginatively described one of its secretariats as “bandit country”.

Cummings has since moved parts of the prime minister’s operation to 70 Whitehall, where he will operate a “NASA-style mission control centre” that will be “akin to a Department of the Prime Minister”. We have all seen the diagrams. The aim is a more effective, strategic centre. As my colleagues have noted, none of this is new: upon taking office, UK prime ministers have long been disappointed to learn just how few levers they actually have at their disposal.

But net zero is a prime example of the type of mission that only a stronger centre will be able to bring in to land. It is a task that demands profound changes in every sector of the UK economy, affecting every individual and business in the country. It will require coordinated effort from every part of government, every regulator and every local authority – sustained over decades.

Currently, climate change is run from the business department. But it lacks clout within Whitehall. It has failed to extract meaningful commitments from other departments or hold them to account for when they fall off track. Almost everyone we spoke to – with the possible exception of the business department itself – agreed it would struggle to oversee such a wholesale change in the economy. And that was before they had hundreds of collapsing businesses to deal with. 

Such a difficult, pressing and cross-cutting problem cannot be left to an underpowered department. Climate change should instead be run from the Cabinet Office, with more ministerial heft and official capacity. It cries out for a senior minister with a Oliver Letwin-like ability to “knock heads together”. That minister should oversee a new net zero unit that can develop shared analysis, coordinate a net zero plan that sets out, sector by sector, how the UK will meet its target – and then hold departments to account for implementing it.

More engineers - and climate experts

The next problem the government has alighted on is patchy skills and capabilities, made worse by excessive turnover. Cummings has long complained of the dominance of arts and humanities graduates. Michael Gove, in his much lauded Ditchley Lecture, spoke of a “whirligig of transfers and promotions” and a lack of “deep, domain-specific, knowledge”.

Again, many of these complaints are well founded. And again, net zero should add to the urgency in tackling them. Meeting the target in an cost effective way will require a deep understanding of complex physical systems and uncertain technologies – from the way electric vehicles, heat pumps, and new options for energy storage and demand-side management should be integrated into the energy system, to the possibilities of unproven technologies such as direct air capture.

Most officials we spoke to felt that disciplines such as engineering remain a weakness, while staff are not encouraged to develop deep expertise in key areas of climate policy. The government should recruit more senior experts from business and industry, particularly engineers, and a create a new climate change cadre in the fast stream to develop a pipeline of talent.

A focus on delivery

A further priority that Gove identified was “delivery on the ground”. Whitehall has historically had a poor reputation for managing large projects on time and on budget, while policies dreamed up in SW1 have too often flopped on contact with reality.

The Green Deal, the coalition government’s flagship energy efficiency scheme, is a classic of the genre. The NAO panned it being poorly planned, based on wrong assumptions and chaotically implemented. A former DECC official told us it was another example of Whitehall carelessly “chucking policy over the fence to delivery”.

Net zero will be the ultimate test of a sharper focus on implementation. It requires the biggest infrastructure transformations the UK has managed in over fifty years and policies which create incentives that encourage businesses and consumers to act.

In fourteen months’ time, the UK will host COP 26 in Glasgow. It will be Global Britain’s first major outing on the world stage; the UK’s credibility will depend on it having not just ambitious targets, but a plan and the capability in place to meet them. If a “hard rain” is about the fall on the civil service, it should start by better equipping government to tackle climate change.

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