Opinion: The role of the Cabinet Office

The Cabinet Office mustn’t let its support work tip over into control, says Rob Whiteman of CIPFA

By Rob Whiteman, CIPFA

26 Feb 2014

Once, the common stereotype in the collective Whitehall psyche was of a Cabinet Office wedded to manipulation; prone to awkward and often unwanted interventions; and eager to maintain its place in the civil service hierarchy. If this image was ever true, it was of course fuelled by those who had fallen foul of Cabinet Office manoeuvres.

The Cabinet Office has undergone a fundamental transformation away from this stereotype in the past few years. Though this may not be universally acknowledged, discussions with civil servants of all ranks prompt comments about a newly professionalised and coherent Cabinet Office, more functional and efficient.

This seems to me to be down to two key drivers: the emergence of a more rigorous professional culture within the Cabinet Office; and two important aspects of the nature of the coalition government. First, the move away from targets and the era of Public Service Agreements has put more focus on execution and less attention on planning. Secondly, the day-to-day working reality of coalition has meant that the senior echelons of the Cabinet Office mediate between two very different political parties in a way never previously required in the modern era.

As its new role of professional expert and power broker has sunk in, a more self-assured and practical Cabinet Office has emerged. Even the things that have failed, such as the proposed constitutional changes in the Coalition Agreement, have not reflected on the department but rather on the nature of coalition politics.

At the heart of this changed Cabinet Office is a desire to change the way that government operates. Ministers are reformist in nature; they want to cut through the waste and fudge in the system. Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude is admired by many politicians across party lines for his clear intention to reform the way that Whitehall works.

Yet I believe that there is still a duality about the Cabinet Office’s role that needs rebalancing. It stands in the centre of Whitehall as a provider of support services, focused on efficiency and systems; while also playing a role as a regulator of departments, holding them to account for their performance and delivery within the collective whole of government.

Outside of Whitehall’s unique circumstances, support organisations work hard to reconcile the difficulty of performing these roles whilst maintaining relationships. In the private sector and most of the public sector, support service professionals are a resource to serve the needs of management. Their reputation is dependent on not being seen as a hindrance, so their mantra is that ‘professionals are on tap and not on top’ when providing expertise. However, for government departments, the ‘support services’ and ‘business partnerships’ provided by the Cabinet Office can be perceived as euphemisms for the dead hand of the centre, interfering and holding them up rather than giving agile advice.

Can the Cabinet Office ensure its own culture and style underpins the cultural change needed across the whole of government, so that transformation is bottom-up and not just top-down? Can the centre of government transform relationships to ensure the energy for innovation comes from within the system and not from a parent/child model? In the present model, there is perhaps still too much attention on who gets the credit or blame, or who calls the shots, rather than creating an appropriate corporate culture.

For me, the strength of any complex organisation – such as the civil service – lies in both the quality, clarity and inspiration of its strategy, which must be understood from top to bottom; and the capacity and permission of its management and staff to deliver that strategy.

The Cabinet Office deserves credit for its reformation and the value it is adding; but if it’s to be effective in its mission to change Whitehall, we must see real investment in effective public management. The end game should be that centralised, shared support roles do not in the longer term mean centralised control and decision-making. While leading this change, the Cabinet Office must balance the necessity to share resources to reduce waste and increase efficiency, with an understanding that management needs space to experiment, innovate, take risks, and even make the odd mistake.

But finally, we need a reality check. The impressive ambition we see from the Cabinet Office for cultural change, enhanced skills and better execution will only happen when departments manage their finances for the medium-term rather than only for one year’s cash. For a future government to achieve Whitehall reform, therefore, the Cabinet Office and Treasury must be joined at the hip in their endeavours. I am not sure this need is as yet acknowledged, yet alone being acted upon.

TW3 is part of the Civil Service Reform Plan, which aims to modernise the civil service work environment.

TW3 envisions an organisation where people:

  • Focus on outcomes not process
  • Are empowered by technology
  • Work flexibly and cost-effectively
  • Collaborate more effectively with other teams in their own department and other departments
  • Maximise productivity and innovation, while reducing environmental impact
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