Opinion: Peter Riddell

Don’t fall for the accepted wisdom. The real story of the coalition lies in the hard data

By Sir Peter Riddell

21 Nov 2014

Of all Britain’s institutions, the civil service may be both the most misunderstood, and the one which has seen the most change since the 2010 general election. The departmental structure, of course, has hardly altered: the name plates are the same, even if several have moved location. But behind that, there have been big changes – just how big is brought home in the second annual edition of the Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor.

This 150-page report uses publicly-available data to provide an authoritative analysis of the size, shape and performance of central government, offering fresh insights and puncturing commonly held myths - a Wisden of Whitehall. 

First, behind the headline figures for cuts in departmental allocations and staff numbers (to the lowest level since 1939), there are big contrasts. The number of staff has fallen most sharply – by over a third – at DCMS and DCLG; but it’s risen at DECC, DfID, and the parts of the Cabinet Office line-managed by ministers and senior civil servants. 

Second, the civil service is now older than it was in 2010; slightly more female at senior levels (though with women still making up only 38% of the senior civil service); and slightly more diverse in terms of ethnicity and disability.

Third – and this isn’t widely appreciated – the ways in which departments operate and manage their resources has changed significantly. At the Department for Education, for instance, the expanded academies programme has meant a shift from administering local authority grants to managing contracts with schools. The Department of Health’s relationship with the NHS and public health is now – formally, at least – conducted through arm’s length bodies; while at the Ministry of Defence, procurement of materiel and support services has moved from direct management to sponsorship of an arm’s-length body. These departments will need to adapt to these different relationships, with new skills being required.

The report also punctures the commonly-held view that the coalition government has been unusually stable. Admittedly, David Cameron delayed his first big reshuffle for two years. However, there have been major changes each year since mid-2012. While six departments have had the same secretary of state since 2010 (namely BIS, the Cabinet Office, DCLG, DWP, the Treasury and the Home Office), six are on their third secretary of state (MoD, Defra, the Wales Office, the Scotland Office, DfT and DCMS). Moreover, largely ignored, there has also been a big churn amongst the junior ministers who do much of the heavy lifting in Parliament and on policy implementation. Overall, only 19 ministers remain in the posts they were given when the government was first appointed in May 2010.

There has been even greater turnover amongst permanent secretaries. Only Sir Nick Macpherson at the Treasury is in the post he held before the last general election: by next May he will be approaching a decade in the job. Some departments are now on their fourth permanent secretary (including acting ones) since 2010: the Cabinet Office, DfT, MoD and the Home Office. All, with the exception of the Treasury and DWP, are on at least their third permanent secretary – including acting ones – since May 2010. This rate of turnover fosters a lack of experience in handling
the pre-election contacts with the Opposition, discussed in my column last month, as well as in the transition to whatever form of government emerges after the next election.

Our report praises the government’s moves towards greater transparency and openness about data, which have allowed the Institute to examine Whitehall’s operations so closely. Indeed, there have been improvements over the past year, notably in both the timeliness and specificity of permanent secretary objectives. The latest set was published in July rather than December, while the average number of objectives was cut in half to an average of nine for each permanent secretary. And each set opens with a general statement about the role and priorities of the department, limiting the sprawling ‘Christmas tree’ effect of the past. Among the other positives is the continued publication of major projects data, providing a comprehensive overview of the government’s portfolio – even where the ratings are not positive.

But there are still weaknesses. It is very hard to explain changes between spending plans and actual outturns for different departments, because data is spread across several documents or, in the case of depreciation of assets for three big departments, not published at all. There are serious shortcomings in the data on government outsourcing, especially through PFI contracts and joint ventures. The useable data on departmental business plans or structural reform plans is also patchy because of inconsistencies. 

Most seriously, the usefulness of impact indicators – showing the outcome of policies – is limited because of variations between departments and patchy public data. There has been much progress in helping outsiders to understand how central government operates and its impact – but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Peter Riddell is the director of the Institute for Government


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