The immediate aftermath of general elections is a time of maximum opportunity and challenge for the civil service, as prime ministers contemplate changes in the organisation of Whitehall. The temptations are often too hard to resist.
However, there are all too many horror stories of machinery of government changes unveiled with little notice or prior preparation, only for the changes to be reversed within a few years, with little or no apparent benefits along the way. Not only are there often larger than expected administrative costs, but shifting departmental boundaries can replace problems in one area with problems in another. The worst recent example was the creation of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in 2007, only for it to be abolished two years later and absorbed within an enlarged business department.
David Cameron has been widely praised for his abstemiousness in this respect. This was partly because of advice from, among others, Francis Maude that the risks were greater than the rewards, but also because of the existence of the coalition. This has not only required lots of senior ministerial posts but it has also frozen their distribution, since changing a department, or abolishing it, would shift the balance between the parties in the allocation of posts.
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IfG: Whitehall restructures must be more focused
However, beneath the surface, Mr Cameron has undertaken several less visible changes, notably shifting responsibility for constitutional affairs from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office under Nick Clegg, while the Government Equalities Office has moved around twice. As important, but less noticed, have been a number of very substantial changes in arm’s length bodies of various kinds, with their total falling by around a third, via abolitions, mergers and reabsorption back within departments.
Now there is talk around Whitehall of a number of other possible changes, including scrapping the culture or communities department; creating new departments to focus on priority areas like infrastructure or housing; splitting the Department for Energy and Climate Change; shifting back responsibility for constitutional affairs to the Ministry of Justice; and the long-discussed favourite of bringing the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland departments together into a Department of the Territories and the regions. There are many arguments for and against, and it will all depend on who emerges as prime minister after May 7th, and what their political position is. Anything short of a majority government will limit the options of any PM.
But prime ministers tempted to shake up Whitehall need to ask some more basic questions about what they really want to achieve, as Tom Gash, research director of the Institute for Government, argues in a new IfG paper, Reshaping Government: Strengthening Whitehall’s top-level structures and processes. Too often reorganising the machinery of government is the wrong answer to deeper questions about the weaknesses of Whitehall, notably its inability to focus on longer-term priorities and its failure to co-ordinate policy and implementation across departments.
Of course, in some cases, restructuring is both necessary and successful, and the changes endure – for instance, the establishment of the International Development Department in 1997, independent from the Foreign Office, and the creation of the Department for Work and Pensions in 2001.
But most successful changes have had common features. They have not been surprises, suddenly announced to achieve maximum political impact and/or to deal with party and personnel management. Successful moves have been floated and debated to allow a proper discussion of the advantages and disadvantages, either before a general election or, ahead of changes, when a government is in office. Sometimes this is difficult because the ministers in charge of the existing departments either resist the changes or cannot be alerted since they are going to be sacked.
Consequently, the IfG paper argues that a prime minister should only pursue restructuring after extensive discussions and following production of a business case assessing the operating rationale for the change, setting estimated costs and benefits, discussing alternatives to structural change and implementation issues. This will require improved central capabilities to advise on such changes. Without copying the rigidity of the American system, parliament should also be involved. The government should publish and lay before parliament the full business case, there should be an opportunity for relevant select committees to scrutinise any proposals and votes should be allowed on substantial changes (currently this only happens in exceptional circumstances).
As important, the next government needs to change procedures to foster collaboration across departments without structure change – by reforming spending review processes; by reinvigorating cross-Whitehall performance management; by using cross-departmental goals, budgets and teams; by deploying specialist skills on a more cross-departmental basis; and building up capacity around the prime minister.
This is a demanding enough series of proposals but, properly and consistently pursued, they should in many (though not all) cases be a more effective, and cheaper, alternative to abolishing and creating departments.