IfG commission recommends new Department for the Civil Service

Report also calls for a new first secretary of state to the lead the civil service department and a department for the PM and his cabinet
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By Tevye Markson

11 Mar 2024

An Institute for Government commission has called for a radical shakeup of the way government functions, including the creation of new departments focused on the civil service, the prime minister and the cabinet. 

The Institute for Government’s Commission on the Centre of Government, launched a year ago, has today released its final report – Power with purpose – which sets out why the centre of government has failed successive prime ministers, and offers seven reforms to fix this.

It calls for No.10 and the Cabinet Office to be restructured into a new Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and a Department for the Civil Service (DCS), arguing that the central departments are “not institutions capable of meeting the challenges” of the rest of the 21st century.

The DCS would “take on the leadership, management and capability of the civil service”, including the teams responsible for setting and enforcing functional standards of practice, civil service talent, learning and development, and modernisation and reform. It would also have a remit to ensure that policies and budgets take delivery considerations into account.

The DPMC would set the direction of the government and “bolster the direct, strategic support for the prime minister”. Its officials would work in a modernised Downing Street and 70 Whitehall complex, structured to ensure clearer staff responsibilities including: a group focused on government priorities, providing policy expertise, economic advice and analysis, performance and delivery functions to track progress and unblock delivery; the cabinet secretariats, plus a new executive committee secretariat; and a joint analysis and assessment centre.

“A stronger, more strategic DPMC will be better able to devolve and decentralise policy to other departments, public bodies and tiers of government,” the report says. “A more strategic centre would only do the things it could add value by doing, supporting delivery and maintaining oversight without getting in the way.”

The report says the IfG “is usually the first to urge caution" around such machinery of government changes as "they can be disruptive and distracting”.

“But we have concluded that the current structure inhibits effective delivery of government priorities to the extent that this step must be taken,” it adds. “Creating a new DPMC would certainly be a significant undertaking, but is necessary, achievable and worth the cost.”

The report recommends the creation of a senior first secretary of state with ministerial responsibility for the civil service to lead the civil service department and take charge of delivering the government's priorities, replacing the role of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. They would work closely with both the prime minister and chancellor, managing tensions between the government’s fiscal objectives and the rest of its agenda and allowing the prime minister to retain a strategic, long-term view. The first secretary would also chair the Civil Service Board.

The commission also calls for the prime minister to create a new statute for the civil service and the Civil Service Board to hold its leadership to account for reform priorities and for the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service to be separated once again – something Francis Maude also recently recommended in his review of civil service governance.  

Another recommendation in the report asks that governments agree “priorities for government” at the start of a parliament, which would be announced as part of a modernised King’s Speech. These priorities would be “fully reflected in a new shared strategy, budget and performance management process owned collectively at the centre”.

Finally, the report calls for the prime minister to appoint an executive cabinet committee made up of a few key ministers. Sir Keir Starmer is considering such an idea, according to reports in The Times today, which suggest the Labour leader wants to create “a powerful new executive cabinet that would make key decisions in advance of them being presented to the cabinet, which is seen as too unwieldy to have proper policy debates”. This would include shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, deputy leader Angela Rayner and shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Pat McFadden.

The commission said the reforms “would give whoever forms the next government a much better chance of success by creating strengthened, united political leadership at the heart of government, a new way to ensure Whitehall’s time and money is directed to long-term, cross-cutting priorities, and a more open and confident centre”.

The commission was chaired by IfG director Hannah White, with political biographer Anthony Seldon as deputy chair. Its conclusions drew on interviews with figures ranging from former prime ministers to leading scientists, senior civil servants in the UK and overseas, and leaders in local government, the private sector and charities.

Sixteen commissioners supported the work of the commission, including former homelessness tsar Baroness Louise Casey, former New Labour health minister and surgeon Lord Ara Darzi, and Royal United Services Institute director general Karin von Hippel.

Conservative peer Lord Danny Finkelstein, who is a journalist and former chair of the Policy Exchange think tank – as well as brother of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein – was also a member of the commission.

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