The incoming government needs to prioritise further Whitehall reform if it is to deliver its manifesto promises and avoid ongoing tensions with officials, the Institute for Government has said.
In its latest report, the think tank warns that unless the next prime minister builds on existing long-term civil service reform to improve cross-departmental working and civil service skills, the next administration will struggle to deliver election pledges.
“Previous governments have often found mid-term they are failing to achieve the changes they want, leading prime ministers to make colourful comments about ‘scars on my back’, and most recently the ‘buggeration factor’”, the report says.
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“Ensuring this does not happen in future will undoubtedly require the whole of Whitehall – both official and political – to improve how it does things.”
At present, reforms such as the Civil Service Capability Plan, the Financial Management Reviews and the Twelve Actions to Professionalise Policymaking have sought to improve the professional skills of officials, while the introduction of the Major Projects Authority has improved Whitehall’s ability to keep projects on track.
However, the report says that the reform model “remains immature” and there is “little coherence between the different approaches”. As a result, many reforms are “yet to deliver their potential”. To prevent repeating the “common cycle” of introducing new ideas and then encountering teething problems, the next administration should therefore seek to build upon these existing reforms.
According to the IfG, three priorities for the next government should be stronger professional functions, recognising that Whitehall behaviours matter as much as structures, and ensuring cross-departmental responsibilities are clearer.
The report also stresses the importance of ensuring there is strong political support for the Whitehall reform agenda.
Julian McCrae, deputy director of the Institute for Government, said: “We’ve started to make progress after five years of having a strong minister in charge of Whitehall reform. It would be tragic if we went back to how this agenda was treated before – with 12 ministers in 13 years, obviously unable to provide continuity and drive.
“Without clear political leadership from the outset, politicians will likely find by mid-term that they are failing to achieve the changes they want, and become increasingly frustrated with Whitehall’s lack of capacity to deliver.”