Senior MPs urge civil service to 'break cycle of siloed, short-term thinking’

Report also calls for a slimmed-down Cabinet Office and revival of national government campus
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By Tevye Markson

29 May 2024

The civil service must transform its culture to move away from "siloed, short-term thinking", senior MPs have warned. 

A new report by the Liaison Committee, parliament’s "supercommittee", says “urgent reform” of Whitehall culture is required to improve strategic decision-making and make the UK “fit for the future”.

It calls for a “profound rethink to break the cycle of siloed, short-term thinking that has come to dominate successive governments’ ways of working”.

The report follows a year-long inquiry by the Liaison Committee looking at how select committees can better promote and sustain strategic thinking in government. Its recommendations include slimming down the Cabinet Office to enable it to focus on strategic priorities, bringing back a national school for government with a physical campus, and creating a new committee that concentrates on cross-departmental strategy.

The committee says the biggest challenge, however, will be to change the culture of Whitehall so that it is “in favour of strategic thinking”. It says the next government will need to identify, encourage and reward the “habits of attitude and behaviour in Whitehall that will promote strategic thinking”, while also identifying and discouraging those which undermine it.  

“Everyone must be persuaded to adopt a sincere understanding of strategy and its language, or culture will remain unchanged,” the report says. “Leadership must be united and clear in this purpose and should lead by example,” it adds.

Released yesterday as the general election campaigns got under way, the report says the next government should set out a clear new national strategy, underpinned by five or six key national strategic priorities, at the start of the next parliament. It says this should be monitored and updated by the National Situation Centre – a Cabinet Office-based data room for national security and crisis management – with an annual report provided to parliament.

Echoing recent calls from Francis Maude, the Institute for Government, and Gordon Brown, John Major and Gus O’Donnell, the report also calls for the Cabinet Office to be “slimmed down” to enable it to focus on these strategic priorities – and its core tasks – arguing it has become “far too big and complicated”. It asks the next government to set out its approach to the much-debated issue, which departing perm sec Alex Chisholm also weighed in on recently, in its response to the report. 

Unlike Maude and some other reformists, however, the committee does not recommend a major shakeup of the Treasury, which it says would be “disruptive”. The report says “the evidence suggests that the Treasury’s role, culture and processes often prevent it from playing a positive role in strategy-making and delivery”, but argues that government can address this by “harnessing the power of the Treasury and focusing on making the current system work better”.

To help develop a strong, shared culture of strategic thinking across government, the committee says the next government should provide a binding commitment to a new “National School for Government and Public Services” with a physical campus.

Students should include civil servants involved in policy and implementation at all grades, as well as ministers, their special advisers and potential future ministers. It should also be open to other public service officials and leaders such as those in local government and the NHS, the report says.

The coalition government shut the National School for Government in 2012. The 2021 Declaration on Government Reform committed to establishing a new physical campus for training civil but the government has yet to deliver on this.

John Glen, the minister for the Cabinet Office, has told the Liaison Committee that establishing a new physical school of government would be a question of prioritisation at the next spending review, while has Rishi Sunak described the idea as "eminently sensible".

Cabinet secretary Simon Case, meanwhile, told the committee he wanted “a stronger syllabus in the civil service on our learning, which I would love to be housed for the long term in a physical location for a national school of government”. He also said training should be more multidisciplinary, "because all of today’s complex problems are multidisciplinary in nature, so training people in their own silos does not work”.

The report says the school should “reflect Case’s aspiration” and calls for a syllabus that addresses all the requirements for effective strategy in government, including developing leaders who can build and lead large cross-departmental teams.

To hold ministers and officials to account for government’s national strategy and “ensure the culture changes required across Whitehall are achieved”, the report recommends the creation of a new select committee on national strategic priorities, with a specific focus on the interests of future generations.

Free of day-to-day departmental scrutiny, the Finland-inspired Committee for the Future would concentrate on cross-departmental national strategy, "with a positive emphasis on forward-looking accountability." 

Sir Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Liaison Committee, said: “Getting parliament and government to be more strategic than they have been over the past 20 or 30 years is vital to restoring public confidence in our entire democratic system, particularly among younger generations who will inherit the consequences of what governments do now.

"The next government should seize this offer from parliament to support and scrutinise strategic thinking for the future.”

The Cabinet Office said it was unable to provide a comment due to it being the pre-election period.

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