Whitehall remains too focused on the day-to-day management of problems at the expense of longer-term planning, a committee of MPs has warned.
In a report published today, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says that while there are some good examples of “far-sighted” policy making across Whitehall, not enough is being done to ensure the Government as a whole is prepared for future threats and opportunities facing the UK.
“We have found a lot of assessment and planning for the future, which is key to maximising opportunity as well as managing risks, but we need better co-ordinated, systematic and imaginative analysis of trends, risks and possibilities across the whole of government,” PASC chairman Bernard Jenkin said.
“This would better underpin far-reaching decisions on long term issues such as low productivity growth, infrastructure, technology, financial regulation, defence and security,” he added.
The Cabinet Office should, according to Jenkin’s committee, “be given the means and the influence to act as an effective headquarters of Government”, or else Whitehall will continue to run the risk of “wasteful conflict”, with departments working at cross-purposes.
The report calls for a strengthening of the Cabinet Office’s ‘horizon scanning’ programme team, which was set up in 2014 with a pledge to help the government make better long-term decisions. PASC warns that the team — which currently has a staff of just five — is “much too small”.
“It needs the capacity and the authority to address gaps and duplications and to coordinate a comprehensive and coherent analysis of the risks and challenges facing the whole of Government,” the report warns.
‘Frank and honest’
As well as urging a stronger role for the Cabinet Office, the committee calls for a wider shift in the culture of the civil service. It says officials must feel able to advise ministers if they believe policy decisions come into conflict with long-term priorities.
“Civil servants should not block or subvert ministerial decisions, but they should ensure their advice reflects a frank and honest assessment of the impact of ministers’ decisions on the long-term aims of Government,” the report says.
The MPs also issue a plea for clearer language from officials, saying that advice to ministers can often by couched in "jargon" which serves only to "obscure meaning, hide inaction and invite ridicule".
The report goes as far as including a table of “potentially confusing terms” used by civil servants, including ‘stovepipes’ — meaning an action carried out in one department with limited wider reach — and ‘deep dive’, which refers to an in-depth look at an area of policy.
“Terms must be well understood for Government to be able to conduct coherent analysis and for officials to act accordingly,” PASC says. “Jargon must not be used to lend a false legitimacy to otherwise ill-thought through ideas, concepts and policies.”
The committee also raises particular concern about the Treasury’s preparedness for future economic shocks, saying HMT has “not absorbed the key lesson” of the 2007-08 financial crisis.
"This leaves the UK exposed to the risk of another adverse event on the same scale as the 2007-08 financial crash," the cross-party group of MPs say.
PASC urges the Treasury to carry out a series of 'war-gaming' exercises with the Bank of England and City watchdog the Financial Conduct Authority in order to test "institutional responses and systemic resilience" across the financial sector.
And it questions why financial and economic risks are not currently included in the UK’s National Risk Register, the regular assessment of potential threats to the country introduced by the last government.
But a spokesperson for the Treasury pushed back strongly against the committee’s findings, telling CSW it was "unfortunate" that PASC’s report "takes no account of the relevant facts".
"By focusing on Whitehall procedures they have entirely missed the point: the lessons of the financial crisis have been learned and acted upon by putting in place a reformed regulatory system, ring fencing the banks, ending the ‘too big to fail’ problem, and dealing with the risks posed to the economy by an unsustainable deficit," the spokesperson added.