Existing Extended Ministerial Offices to be "dismantled", Cabinet Office confirms

Minister Ben Gummer says his department is working with the Civil Service Commission to unwind coalition-era reforms – but questions remain over fate of staff already brought into government

By Matt Foster

17 Jan 2017

Any Extended Ministerial Offices set up in government departments over the past four years are now being wound down, the Cabinet Office has confirmed, after the short-lived – and sometimes controversial – experiment in increasing the expertise available to ministers was brought to an end.

EMOs were introduced by the coalition government in 2013, effectively allowing ministers to bypass the civil service's recruitment principles and bring in external advisers as temporary, non-political officials.

The 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.

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A revision to the Ministerial Code, published just before Christmas, deleted all references to Extended Ministerial Offices, and Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer has now confirmed that any offices already established are to be scrapped.

"A revised version of the Ministerial Code was published on the 21st December 2016, which removed the provisions for setting up Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs)," Gummer said in response to a series of parliamentary questions from Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron.

"My officials are working with the Civil Service Commission and relevant departments on the process of disbanding any remaining EMOs."

"The Commission is currently involved in discussions with government about the consequences for any individuals involved" – Civil Service Commission spokesperson

Take up of EMOs was initially low, and despite guidance on setting up the extended offices first being unveiled in November 2013, none were established during the Coalition's time in government.

According to the House of Commons library, however, five were set up following the 2015 election of David Cameron's Conservative government.

It is currently unknown what fate awaits those members of staff brought into the civil service under the initiative, with the terms of their employment not publicly available.

A spokesperson for the Civil Service Commission, which regulates senior appointments to the civil service, told CSW it was advising the Cabinet Office on next steps.

"It is government policy to end the provision of Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs) and for government to decide on how they intend to dismantle existing EMOs," a spokesperson said.

"The Commission is currently involved in discussions with government about the consequences for any individuals involved and how that would be best managed within the Commission's recruitment principles."

"Informal Ways"

Liz Truss, who set up an EMO during her time as Conservative environment secretary, told the IfG in a speech last year that she was a "huge fan" of the model, which had allowed her to bring outsiders including open data expert Ellen Broad into Defra. Clare Moriarty, Defra's most senior civil servant, meanwhile told CSW that the EMO had acted "like an enriched strategy unit", and brought a "diversity of thinking styles" to the department which had helped to bridge "the gap between what ministers think and how civil servants traditionally operate".

"I strongly believe that the more we can do to ensure that everything civil servants do is underpinned by understanding where ministers come from, the better," she said last year.

Nicola Hughes, research manager at the Institute for Government – the think tank which made the case for increased ministerial support in a 2013 report – said it was a "shame" that the EMOs appeared to be facing the chop "without any real evaluation or thinking through" of what will replace them.

"Although they had problems – and you can see from the fact that they weren't widely adopted that ministers weren't enthusiastic about the exact model – the issue that they were trying to address hasn't gone," she told CSW.

Citing the IfG's own "Ministers Reflect" series of interviews with former ministers, Hughes said that even junior ministers found it "quite difficult" to hit the ground running, and regularly spoke about the need to have more support around them, particularly on complex areas of policy.

"Obviously you've got your civil servants – but sometimes you just need a bit of energy, or you want someone that's got specific outside experience of doing stuff to come in," she said.

Hughes said ministers in the Coalition government appeared to have been dissuaded from taking advantage of the EMO model because of the requirement to have appointments signed off by both Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers, and for a representative from the Downing Street Implementation Unit to be included in their teams.

It was also, she said, unclear how widely ministers had understood the changes, or whether they had simply continued to use informal routes to bring in extra support rather than "go through the process of that formal set-up and the scrutiny that that involves".

While EMOs had their critics – former BIS minister David Willetts described them as "bonkers" – Hughes argued that the model had helped to provide a clearer "set of expectations" around the external support ministers were able to draw on, as well as the role those advisers were expected to play within the wider government departments.

"Certainly from an outside point of view it will now be even harder than it was when EMOs existed to tell who the people are that ministers are appointing around them," she added.

"And you know, it's not easy – but ministers can find informal ways of getting people in through other routes. The EMO just seemed like a slightly cleaner way to do that."

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