Delivering civil service reform should be an urgent priority for Rishi Sunak over the coming months as the countdown to the next general election increasingly dominates the political agenda, Institute for Government director Hannah White has said.
White’s call came in a near-apocalyptic overview of the challenges facing the newly-installed prime minister this year, which warned that 2023 could be “wasted” for the government after the turmoil of 2022 and questions around the viability of the government’s spending plans.
Focusing on core issues that could restore public faith in the government’s ability to deliver – including dealing with inter-departmental churn among civil servants and bringing sufficient amounts of external expertise onboard – would be productive moves, White said..
“Laying the groundwork for reforms would prove a valuable legacy whatever the outcome of the next election, but improving the running of government would not be a purely altruistic goal,” she said.
“It would create short-term wins too – by equipping government better to spot and resolve problems and handle crises, addressing the frustrations for ministers of a government machine that doesn’t deliver as well as they might wish.”
White said the lack of energy behind the government reform agenda since then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove set out the Johnson administration’s Declaration on Government Reform in 2021 was a “serious problem”.
“The need to improve and strengthen the civil service has only grown over the past two years,” she said.
“The civil service derives its authority from its effectiveness, so it is profoundly in its interests – as well as those of all citizens – for it to work as well as it can.”
White said civil service morale had been “sapped by low-trust relationships with politicians and depleted by public criticism from ministers”. She added that the impartiality and permanence of the civil service had also been called into question by the sackings of permanent secretaries, such as the Department for Education’s Jonathan Slater and the Treasury’s Sir Tom Scholar.
However, she noted that the civil service’s problems did not all stem from the political class, with the Partygate scandal dealing a “severe blow” to its reputation by the “implication of officials at the highest level” and a lack of “lack of visible leadership” in dealing with the consequences.
Ending the “permacrisis”
In November 2022, the producers of the Collins Dictionary named “permacrisis” as their word of the year, with its definition of “an extended period of instability and insecurity” chiming distinctly with the times.
White said the crisis footing that government had operated on since 2016 had become endemic and normalised over the passage of time.
“Unprecedented political turmoil and ministerial churn have distracted politicians, limiting the ability of the civil service to progress the government’s reform agenda and requiring civil servants instead to focus on inducting and understanding the priorities of a succession of new minsters,” she said.
“A continuous cycle of crises has driven superficial, reactive and short-term policymaking by a generation of officials who have little experience of working differently, having arrived during the rapid expansion in civil service numbers after 2016 (which followed the austerity-driven hollowing out from 2010).”
She added: “The civil service is now being directed and scrutinised by a generation of politicians of all parties who have never seen government operate in any other mode. The third of MPs who joined the Commons at or after the 2017 election have only seen parliament operating in the exceptional circumstances of Brexit and the pandemic, both of which constrained normal scrutiny processes.
“Expedited law-making, the creation and use of sweeping Henry VIII powers and skeleton bills are all now seen as normal, as is an approach to government which stretches the flexibilities of the UK’s uncodified constitution to its limits.”
2023 could be a wasted year for Sunak
White said that while many of the problems facing the UK were global in scale, others – such as low economic productivity and the inadequacy of social-care arrangements – were the legacy of past governments’ failures.
“As the year begins, almost no individual and organisation in the UK has been left unaffected by soaring energy prices and the cost of living crisis,” she said.
“The country is paralysed by strikes as workers struggle with the impact of inflation on real wages, and the NHS and other public services are under greater strain than ever with pre-existing underinvestment and backlogs exacerbated by the pandemic.”
But she said that roots of those problems did not absolve today’s politicians from their obligations to find effective solutions, and questioned what would be possible in the two years between now and when the next general election must be held.
“The prospect of that general election, by January 2025, is already shaping Sunak’s government,” White said. “A two-year deadline is particularly unhelpful for a new government taking office. Being put on an election footing so early into their terms in office risks reducing ministers’ political appetite for the longer-term planning so necessary to address the nation’s current problems.
“That is not to say it will not happen – the Climate Change Act that set decades-long rules on carbon emissions was passed with cross-party support two years before the 2010 election – but the prospect of such work, vital today for issues such as social care, will require a level of political cooperation not seen in recent years.”
She said there were already signs of declining interest in the work of government among some Conservative Party MPs, who were choosing instead to focus on constituency work in the hope of retaining their seats at the next election.
White said that many of the commitments in the 2019 Conservative Party general-election manifesto were “wildly outdated”, but noted that Sunak could not admit the fact “without making the case for a general election he does not relish”.
She said Sunak was also bound by the commitments he gave in his unsuccessful first bid to become Conservative Party leader over the summer, when he was defeated by Liz Truss.
She said it was vital for the PM to consider what he can realistically achieve in parliament and the likely electoral consequences.
Pointing to the PM’s 4 January speech at the Plexal co-working space in east London, White said Sunak’s response so far to his constraints was to define a set of goals of “limited ambition”. They include halving inflation, reducing national debt and cutting NHS waiting lists; growing the economy; and passing laws to stop illegal immigration via small boats – rather than pledging to stop the phenomenon itself.
“The electorate will reach its own judgement on whether he succeeds – but this may, or may not, be on the terms that the prime minister has prescribed,” she said.