Beef up select committees to prevent "disruptive" Whitehall rejigs – IfG

Institute for Government report highlights “persistent weaknesses” that cause costly policy churn, prescribing a stronger role for MPs and the centre of government to stop unnecessary changes and secure institutional memory

By Suzannah Brecknell

14 Mar 2017

MPs and the Cabinet Office should do more to stop ministers from wasting resources on "endless" expensive restructures of Whitehall, the Institute for Government has said.

The IfG's latest report looks at the way policies and organisations have evolved in further education, regional governance and industrial policy over the past fifty years.

It shows that in the FE sector there have been 28 major pieces of legislation since the 1980s, 48 secretaries of state – and no single organisation that has lasted for more than a decade. It also points that there have been at least two industrial strategies in the last decade – with a third in development.

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The think tank says parliamentary select committees should be able to scrutinise the business case for new arms'-length bodies, and the Cabinet Office should play a more active role in policy development to prevent costly policy and organisational changes, while Number 10 should also have a stronger role in setting out departmental priorities.

Emma Norris, IfG programme director, said: “The sheer scale of change to these key government policy areas is astounding – not just because of the costs incurred, but also the effect on people’s lives. Government can and must safeguard against more wasting time, money and resources on endless change that result in little progress.

“This churn is not simply a result of changes in government. It highlights persistent weaknesses in our system of government: the tendency to change and to recreate rather than commit to stable, well-evidenced policy.”

The IfG estimates that creating the Department for Energy and Climate Change in 2008 cost £15m in the first year, while the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2002 cost more than £30m.

The work and pensions department cost almost £175m to create, the IfG estimates, and it warns that these figures do not reflect the full impact of the new departments.

“None of this takes account of the temporary disruption to business, as people grapple with the logistics of creating a new department from the constituent parts, as well as the potential loss of institutional memory.

“The same considerations will apply to the frequent reorganisations that central government inflicts on the rest of the public sector.

The think tank points to four reasons why policy areas experience regular changes: poor institutional memory; a tendency to change organisations “as a proxy for demonstrating progress”; poor policy development processes and poor long-term planning at the centre of government.

To counteract these challenges, the IfG recommends a number of changes including a stronger role for the Treasury, the National Audit Office and select committees when ministers want to close or create new organisations.

In particular the IfG calls on parliament to ensure that no new quangos or arm’s-length bodies can be established without a written business case, approved by the Cabinet Office and scrutiny from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee as well as the relevant select committee.

The Treasury, meanwhile, should analyse the costs and benefits of past organisational changes so that it can better challenge future reorganisations that may not be value for money

Alongside this stronger role for the Treasury, the IfG calls for a beefed-up capacity for long-term planning at the centre of government, and a stronger role for the Cabinet Office in “interrogating” policy proposals.

Officials in Number 10 should also consider ways to set firm, lasting targets for departmental ministers and officials, the report says. 

It points to charter and mandate letters used in Australia and Canada as examples – these are sent by the PM to secretaries of state setting out the priorities they should deliver through their departments and agencies.

Within departments, the IfG wants to see the top policy professional given responsibility for keeping records management systems up to scratch, and for ensuring that major reforms are “proceeding on a full understanding of past and existing policies and organisations.”

This should include upgrading knowledge management systems, so that “all policymakers should be able to access a repository of work already undertaken in their policy area, in order to inform their own recommendations".

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