Civil service reform: How do the manifestos stack up?

While the proposals were not front and centre, both the Labour and Conservative manifestos addressed the "how" of government
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By Jordan Urban

19 Jun 2024


Manifestos are, first and foremost, designed to help a political party win an election.  And while I – and, I suspect, the readers of Civil Service World – care deeply about government reform, it tends not to form a big part of the parties’ offer to voters. 

But while the proposals were not front and centre, both the Labour and Conservative manifestos addressed the "how" of government. 

The Conservatives’ manifesto was a mixed bag 

The Conservatives provided the most detail and many of their proposals are encouraging. The relocation agenda, moving more senior and policy officials outside of London, has been the biggest reform success of the last parliament and pledging to move more officials outside the capital makes sense. Plans to require the external advertisement of all civil service jobs are also welcome, as a way to expand the pool of people entering the civil service, including from different professional backgrounds, and to facilitate more seamless "in-and-out" careers.  

Doubling digital and AI expertise in the civil service is an ambition few could argue with, given the opportunities that AI and other frontier technology could bring for improving government administration. Halving consultancy spend is a sensible adoption of a policy initially put forward by Labour. 

But the headline pledge the Conservatives made was also their least credible. Re-committing to return the civil service to its pre-pandemic size makes little sense on its own terms; the number of officials should correspond to what the government actually wants to do, not an arbitrary number. But claims it would save £3.9bn are ambitious – successive governments have found it hard to turn promised job cuts into cashable savings. Supposed "efficiencies", when they come without fundamental reforms or a reduction in the scope of the state, have just resulted in higher spend on consultants and other overheads. In the event they were returned to government, the Conservatives would have to find more money elsewhere.  

"Supposed 'efficiencies', when they come without fundamental reforms or a reduction in the scope of the state, have just resulted in higher spend on consultants and other overheads"

Similarly, the pledge to "bring quango spending under control" was slated in the manifesto’s accompanying costings document to save £1.3bn annually by 2029-30 – a heroic estimate, especially because several of the Conservatives’ commitments involve strengthening or setting up more public bodies and no plans to abolish any. 

Labour’s silence on civil service reform must not mean inaction in government 

In contrast, the party likely to form the next government had little to say. Halving consultancy spend made it into the document, and is a sensible way to reduce spending that has risen 40% in real terms since 2018-19. But if Labour are looking to make any substantial reforms – the Brown Review recommended more civil service relocation, while Sue Gray has previously welcomed “embracing outside involvement working with and alongside the civil service” – they will need to prioritise it at the start of their term.  

It was a good decision to keep their powder dry on the question of “mission-driven government”. The document reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to the concept, but there were no specifics on what that might mean for the practical organisation of Whitehall. This was sensible – while Keir Starmer, Sue Gray and their wider team undoubtedly have views, with a recent FT report suggesting they plan to create a series of "mission boards", they are right to want to discuss those with officials during their first few days in power before making decisions. Committing to any specific architecture now would have been a mistake. 

Labour should not be afraid of borrowing ideas from other parties 

Labour might also have done well to take a leaf from the Liberal Democrats’ book. In their manifesto, the Lib Dems gave the boldest proposal of the lot – “a new prime minister must win a confidence vote on their programme for government before taking office”.  

The sequencing implies a major constitutional change that is probably unnecessary. But if the Labour manifesto is to be “a plan that is much more than a list of policies”, as Keir Starmer said in his speech launching it, then a programme for government would be a good way of prioritising their pledges, turning the manifesto into practical steps that inform the work of the Whitehall machine. 

If Labour win, they would also be well advised to continue some of the measures introduced by Jeremy Quin and John Glen, during the more constructive period of ministerial leadership of the civil service that succeeded Jacob Rees-Mogg’s unsuccessful tenure. For example, the introduction of senior specialist roles for people who are expert in "knowing and doing" but who are unwilling or incapable managers, was announced by Glen just a couple of months ago and is the sort of thing that it is important to keep doing.  

The real test is yet to come 

Both parties have set out their pledges and priorities, but none of that will matter if the winner does not invest time and attention into the government machine that will implement them. Jonathan Powell has recalled how Tony Blair complained to him, six months into his first term, that “the government machine felt like a shiny Rolls Royce parked outside in Downing Street which he was not allowed to drive.” The next prime minister should not make the same mistake. 

Developing a programme for government should be the first step a new government takes. But plenty more innovations and changes are necessary. If it is Labour, publishing a manifesto light on commitments about civil service reform is understandable. But a more proactive approach in government is needed. 

Jordan Urban is a senior researcher in the Institute for Government's civil service and policymaking team

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