Think tank makes argument for delivery units across government

Reform paper makes series of recommendations to tackle barriers to effective delivery
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By Tevye Markson

18 Jun 2024

The next government should create delivery unit-style teams in every department and build intergovernmental and interdepartmental institutions to improve collaboration, a think tank has said.

The Reform think tank paper, A manifesto for delivery: 14 ideas for building a Whitehall to deliver, outlines the barriers that stand in the way of more effective delivery and the policy ideas that could help to overcome them.

Other suggestions in the report include elevating the operational aspects of policymaking to the same stature as policy expertise and departmental innovation sandbox pilots.

The paper is informed by a series of roundtable discussions with leading senior civil servants, including permanent secretaries Sarah Healey of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; Sarah Munby of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology; Dame Dr Emily Lawson, who heads up the No.10 Delivery Unit; and Sapana Agrawal, director of modernisation and reform at the Cabinet Office.

The report warns that the next government "will be confronted by a notable double test of combined and overlapping external and internal challenges". It says the UK faces numerous external challenges such as extensive NHS waiting lists, housing shortages, and ambitious net-zero targets, "which will place immense demands on the policymaking, administrative and implementation systems at the core of the state". At the same time, it says, "those very systems experience, despite efforts from successive governments, a great deal of inertia".

“This double-bind severely inhibits the ability of the Whitehall system to achieve the priorities of the government of the day," the paper argues.

But it says the government can tackle these barriers by building upon existing efforts to drive change within the system, such as the work of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit and the Evaluation Task Force, and by creating space for more radical, innovative and cognitively diverse approaches.

The report argues that there is a clear path to enhanced delivery capability but achieving this will require “a concerted effort to refine the machinery of government, empower the people who make it work, incentivise and create spaces for innovative approaches, and commit to a learning culture underpinned by thorough evaluation processes”. It adds that these goals are mutually supportive.

Enhancing the machinery of delivery

Structural and systemic changes to the machinery of government can establish the right environment and incentives for effective delivery, the paper says.

Civil servants often find themselves struggling to make progress within a “highly compartmentalised and insular structure," the report argues. “Departments operate in silos, inhibiting the flow of information and the kind of cross-cutting cooperation that major policy challenges often demand," it says.

The paper calls on the government to ensure it is actively learning from the work of cross-cutting and silo-busting teams such as the No.10 Delivery Unit, “with a view to iterating upon their practice with delivery-unit style teams within every government department and to support the work of major whole-government initiatives like missions”.

It also warns that there is a “marked disconnect between policy formulation and implementation, leading to policies that are sometimes infeasible or make little sense on contact with the actual conditions in the places where implementation happens”. To address this, it suggests that the next government should elevate the operational and delivery-focused aspects of policymaking, bringing these into parity with policy expertise.

The paper also says the gap between central and local government systems exacerbates coordination and communication issues.  It suggests the creation of intergovernmental and interdepartmental institutions to tighten the feedback loop between central and local government and build cross-functional collaboration through the Whitehall system.

It adds that, where local systems are sufficiently mature, powers should be devolved to local or regional authorities to help drive delivery.

People: skills, capabilities and cognitive diversity

The paper says, however, that a “good machine is impotent without good people to work within it”.

It warns that inadequate recruitment, workforce planning and utilisation of skills and diversity mean that Whitehall is not getting the best out of its people.

To help identify and leverage existing talents within the civil service, it calls for a skills-mapping exercise, informed by the practice of the successful Government Digital Service. This would ultimately be used to help inform a full-scale strategic workforce plan.

It also argues that recruitment practices should be adapted to help ensure a wider range of experiences and cognitive approaches are incorporated into Whitehall processes.

To further build cognitive diversity and expertise throughout the civil service, it calls for adaption of  development, advancement, and promotion practices.

And it says the government should ensure that development programmes such as the Future Leaders Scheme targeted at promising grade 6 and 7 civil servants, cultivate skills that enhance people's ability to integrate multidisciplinary teams effectively.

Embedding innovation within the system

Innovation is essential for a dynamic public sector, yet remains insufficiently embedded within everyday operations, the paper argues.

It says there are notable instances of innovative practices within Whitehall, such as the creation of both the Advanced Research Invention Agency, and a trend-leading AI Safety Institute.

But it argues that there is far less emphasis placed on the fostering of everyday innovative practices. It warns that innovation within Whitehall is often isolated and not sufficiently scaled, lacking a systematic approach to embedding innovation as a core aspect of the civil service operation. And it says a prevalent risk-averse culture inhibits experimentation and adoption of potentially groundbreaking policies, with failures often stigmatised instead of being seen as learning opportunities.

The paper suggests two idea to address these problems.

One is to pilot the use of departmental innovation sandboxes: hubs where teams are invited to develop novel policy ideas and delivery approaches outside the usual hierarchies of civil service work. Teams can apply to develop an idea "within the sandbox".

The other is to build incentives for innovative practices within departments through policies which ensure that departments themselves benefit from a share of any major efficiency savings or productivity benefits that are achieved through innovative working, instead of these automatically being held by Treasury.

Learning and evaluation

Finally, the report argues for a strengthening of evaluation and learning “to prevent missteps in governance and policy implementation”.

“Despite the growing success of the Evaluation Task Force, there is often a reluctance to engage in thorough evaluation due to fears of internal consequences or criticism,” the paper says. It adds that this is compounded by a lack of clarity about what constitutes “good” evaluation and insufficient sharing of best practices.

The report recommends that the government strengthen the Evaluation Task Force so it can go further in driving a stronger evaluative capability across Whitehall, and adopt a proactively transparent ‘publication by default’ policy for evaluations of project work taking place within Whitehall, ensuring transparency and encouraging a culture of accountability.

It also calls for the development of new forums for sharing good practice between different teams and different tiers of government to help feed into the policy development process and enhance learning across and between departments.

Finally, it says there should be a requirement that evaluation and delivery processes are incorporated into project and programme planning from the earliest stages.

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