Downing Street moves to tighten grip on Whitehall with new "Implementation Taskforces"

Number 10 spokesperson denies new units tracking policy progress are a "judgement on the civil service"

By matt.foster

02 Jun 2015

David Cameron has moved to give Downing Street more control over government policy by setting up a batch of new "Implementation Taskforces".

The taskforces – covering issues including housing, immigration, health and troubled families – will be used to track the progress of what Number 10 calls "the government’s most important crosscutting priorities", and their creation signals a return to more centralised oversight of the government's agenda after the coalition scrapped the New Labour-era prime minister’s Strategy Unit in 2010.

A statement issued by Downing Street this morning said that the taskforces would "bring together the key ministers and officials on a regular basis to track progress" in a bid to "spot potential problems and blockages", "maintain momentum" and ensure that "actions are followed through".

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A Number 10 spokesperson denied that the new arrangement represented a "judgement on the civil service", saying it was instead an "an extra way of making sure that delivery happens".

Last year David Cameron vented his frustration at what he called the "buggeration factor" in Whitehall, which he claimed had prevented ministers from achieving their policy objectives, while then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told Civil Service World that he believed there needed to be "much more organised, methodological, systematic follow-up" of ministerial decisions.

Downing Street's announcement of the new teams has been welcomed by the Institute for Government think tank.

"We have long argued that ministers have an important role in implementation, and we welcome the establishment of minister-led taskforces as acknowledgement of that," said programme director Jill Rutter, a former civil servant.

But she warned: "The success of these taskforces will critically depend on how ministers play their role: they need to be clear on what they are trying to do, confront problems that arise and work with those responsible for turning policies into action to come up with practical ways forward. Above all they need to be clear they want honest upward reporting on progress – or lack of it.”

As well as unveiling the Implementation Taskforces, Cameron has also announced which ministers are to sit on the powerful Cabinet committees that take collective government decisions.

Oliver Letwin – the minister in overall charge of the Cabinet Office who was elevated to a full place at the Cabinet table at last month's reshuffle – will sit on all 14 committees, while Matt Hancock, the new minister responsible for civil service policy, will sit on the committees covering economic, European and home affairs, as well as those on public spending and social justice.

Ahead of the election, Cameron’s handling of the Number 10 operation came under fire from Labour, with former justice secretary Lord Falconer telling CSW that he believed the prime minister had "abolished the centre’s ability properly to evaluate policy" in an attempt to signal a break from perceived micro-management under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The prime minister later introduced his own "policy and implementation" unit staffed by civil servants in 2012.

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