"Substantial cuts mean the civil service will have to do things differently" – Tony Blair's delivery chief Michael Barber rates the Spending Review

As the dust settles on the Spending Review, the founder of Tony Blair's Downing Street Delivery Unit Sir Michael Barber assesses the implications for good government, looks ahead to the new Single Departmental Plans – and says it's time for a rethink to ensure the civil service can continue to attract top talent

By Jess Bowie

30 Nov 2015

What are the implications for delivery of this fresh round of cuts to departmental budgets?

It is important to remember the context. The government was elected with a mandate to tackle the deficit. Also in my book How to Run a Government I argue that good governments need to be clear about their priorities.

This Spending Review does represent clear prioritisation in spending allocation. That means that some of the cuts are very substantial indeed. The only way to respond sensibly is to think radically and do things differently. A good example is the Ministry of Justice's plan to sell old inner city prison sites and build prisons which are in much cheaper locations and which are much better prisons from the point of view of education and security. 

IFS on the Spending Review: “Lucky” Osborne has eased the squeeze – but chancellor may have to revisit cuts plan
Spending Review verdict: reaction from the FDA, PCS, Prospect, the Institute for Government, the RSA and the CBI
Antonia Romeo on David Cameron's new Implementation Taskforces and getting delivery right
Post Spending Review webinar with CSW and KPMG

The result across government should be fewer, more effective civil servants, much better use of technology and more empowerment of, and responsibility for, individual citizens. Potentially a very good deal all round – but very hard to get there!  

The government should reconsider the cap it has put on pay for top posts – it needs to be able to motivate the best emerging talent in the civil service and recruit new talent from outside.

In your opinion, how much coordination from the centre went into the Spending Review? Was sufficient attention given to outcomes when the cuts were being planned?

In How to Run a Government, I argue that every government and minister should be able to answer the question "If I succeed, what difference will citizens notice?" 

This does require being clear about outcomes. We will see in the proposed Single Departmental Plans how clear the various departments are about what they aim to achieve over the course of this parliament.

I was encouraged by the establishment in Number 10 of the delivery task forces, and by the renewal of the Implementation Unit. These should help the government establish a clear and coherent delivery agenda.

How confident are you that Single Departmental Plans when they appear later this month will help government deliver on its promises?

We will see what they are like when they emerge. I have been impressed by conversations both with civil servants and ministers in a number of departments – there is a collective sense of endeavour and a recognition that cuts on this scale require not just prioritisation, but also innovation.

I would like to see departmental plans spelling out progress under three headings.

First, what outcomes for citizens do they intend to deliver over the course of the parliament (e.g. on employment, health waiting times and quality, access to university for students from low income backgrounds etc)?

Second, what will they do to build legitimacy and engage and motivate citizens, especially in taking responsibility for their own affairs (e.g. improve diet, do more exercise, abandon drugs, develop skills, look for a job etc)? 

Encouraging individuals and communities to take more responsibility for themselves often gets condemned as a cover for cuts. It may indeed contribute to reducing state expenditure, but the real benefit is liberation from dependence on the state. In doing this, equity concerns need to be front and centre – the wealthy always have choice. for example.What needs to be done to ensure choice and opportunity for low income families?

Third, how will departments strengthen themselves and relevant agencies as institutions? A good government should set out not just to deliver its goals, but to leave the machinery of government better than they found it.

The success of the Government Digital Service in the last Parliament is a good example. If government as a whole and each department delivered all three of these things it would achieve what I call 'pragmatic stewardship'. It would also, by the way, be an example looked to across the world.

Sir Michael Barber is author of How to Run a Government (Penguin 2015) and previously founded and led the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit under Tony Blair. He is founder of Delivery Associates and co-chair of the Centre for Public Impact. He tweets as @MichaelBarber9

Read the most recent articles written by Jess Bowie - Lunch with... civil service skills evangelist Pamela Dow

Share this page