Downing Street should take back control of the civil service, says think tank

More power should be held by the prime minister’s office, says think tank in a paper influenced by Dominic Cummings

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By Jonathan Owen

31 Dec 2019

The prime minister’s office and special advisers should lead fundamental reforms needed to unlock the potential of the civil service, according to the Policy Exchange think tank.

In a briefing which highlights Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, among its sources, the think tank outlines how the civil service should be changed.

It warns that the civil service is under “unprecedented strain” and needs to modernise to face the challenges of a post-Brexit Britain.

Proposed reforms include a complete overhaul of the existing public appointments process to allow ministers to appoint their preferred candidates and prevent a majority of important public roles being handed to “ideological opponents.”


A “more professionalised approach” with “effective involvement and ownership by ministers and special advisers from the outset” is needed.

Among the recommendations is a call for the restoration of the coalition government era reform from 2013 to 2017 of extended ministerial offices, which is intended to provide significantly increased policy making capacity for departmental ministers. This move was designed to bolster the support available to ministers and introduce new thinking into departments, but some critics argued that it risked politicising the civil service and driving a wedge between ministers and their permanent staff.

Policy Exchange also called for the creation of a dedicated ‘red team’ of “10-15 high calibre individuals” should be created “with an explicit mandate to challenge received wisdom and critically examine new policy proposals in No. 10, Treasury and government departments.”

Such a proposal has been among Cummings’ recommendations for government reform, and he is expected to lead a review into the civil service following a wide-ranging government reshuffle in the new year.

Policy Exchange said that the head of the Red Team should report directly to the prime minister’s chief of staff, while it also called for the economic and domestic affairs secretariat should be moved from the Cabinet Office to No. 10, “uniting central policy making functions under the prime minister.”

The Whitehall Reimagined briefing paper also proposed that civil service recruitment and progression should be reformed “to enhance expertise, accountability and institutional memory” and the paper recommended a restoration of pay progression in post for civil servants who are delivering effectively.

It also made a number of recommendations are also made to reform of the public appointments process though “a more rigorous assessment of candidates both for experience and ability and to ensure their approach to their roles will align with that of the democratically elected government of the day.”

This should include the creation of a “dedicated public appointments process to be established within No.10, headed by special advisers” and able to “veto appointments where necessary.”

The process should be “significantly more flexible, including the ability to appoint individuals with a strong public record on the basis of that record alone.”

Writing in the foreword, Dame Patricia Hodgson, former chair of Ofcom, said: “Whitehall needs more access to talent, streamlined processes and the confidence to work closely with outside experts and with political advisers able to provide improved support for ministers, including junior ministers.”

She added: “Civil service systems and structures should be aligned with those used in the most effective organisations.”

When it comes to attracting talent, “current senior recruitment processes to public bodies seem almost designed to fail.”

Headhunters should be used to find the best candidates and appointments to public bodies should be speeded up, she said.

“This paper is designed not to overturn the civil service, but to strengthen it. The civil service can only deliver if we recruit the best, require the best and properly manage and reward the best.”

Reorganisation plans

The paper comes after several recent media reports claiming Boris Johnson is planning to restructure several government departments.

Responsibility for Britain’s borders and immigration system could be taken from the Home Office and placed in a standalone department, while the Department for International Trade could merge with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Climate change policy could be moved from BEIS into a new ministerial department, while the Department for International Development could be absorbed by the Foreign Office.
Other changes reportedly being discussed within government include giving the prime minister’s office more power and encouraging the recruitment of external experts into the civil service.

The Policy Exchange briefing echoes the recent reports and recommends merging the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and creating a Department for the Union to “provide a coherent voice within Whitehall, with the devolved governments and across the UK on union matters.”

When it comes to public procurement, “from the bankruptcy of Carillion in 2017 to the ongoing problems with escalating cost of High Speed 2, it is clear that there is something very wrong with the way that the machinery of government interacts with private commercial organisations.”

There is a “mismatch” between staff who “frequently do not have a commercial background” and “well-resourced commercial actors.” Although this is an area where reforms have already been made, though the creation of the Government Commercial Organisation for senior procurement professionals, there is a need for government to “go further in attracting and retaining commercial staff with significant performance-related remuneration and career progression incentives.”

'Dangers of reform'

Responding to the report, Dave Penman, FDA general secretary, described the briefing paper of seeking to “break the monopoly of advice from civil servants to ministers.”

He said: “Whether this is driven by ideological mistrust or a genuine attempt to improve the advice to ministers, it comes with a number of inherent dangers.”

Penman added: “The rehashing of Extended Ministerial Offices – increasing the number of political appointees around ministers – and the emphasis on greater external legal advice both smack of an ideological approach that seeks to dilute the role of the civil service.”

And moving to appoint advisers on the basis of their political persuasions “may be more likely to give the minister the advice they want rather than need, but that does not make for good government.”

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