Ex-Whitehall big hitters back commission aimed at reforming government’s centre

Former civil service chiefs and ministers are among those takin part in year-long think tank project which hopes to ‘radically improve’ central units

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The Institute for Government has launched a year-long commission tasked with coming up with proposals to reshape the centre of government and make it fit to respond to 21st century challenges.

The think tank has accused the centre of government – principally the Cabinet Office, No.10 Downing Street, and the Treasury – of being “hopelessly ill-equipped” to meet present-day demands. The IfG said the centre sometimes even hindered the delivery of policies that were prime ministerial priorities.  

Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell and government historian Lord Peter Hennessy have both backed the IfG initiative, which will be chaired by IfG director Hannah White with historian Sir Anthony Seldon as deputy chair.

The project’s 15 commissioners include former homelessness tsar Baroness Louise Casey, former Labour health minister and surgeon Lord Ara Darzi, and Royal United Services Institute director general Karin von Hippel.

Conservative peer Lord Danny Finkelstein, who is a journalist and former chair of the Policy Exchange think tank – as well as brother of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein – is also a member of the commission.

White said the responses to Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic had exposed deep problems in the way the centre of government currently works.

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The commission’s focus is to produce recommendations for a “confident, proactive, coherently structured” centre, equipped to meet challenges, take opportunities and deliver for the UK, according to the IfG director.

“Every prime minister needs a No.10, Cabinet Office and Treasury capable of delivering their priorities, but the centre of UK government does not always work well,” White said. “The need for reform – to equip the centre to meet the demands of government in the 21st century – is urgent, and the institute’s commission will provide concrete recommendations to improve how it works.”

The Cabinet Office is home to several of government’s dedicated technology and data-focused units, including the Government Digital Service – which is delivering the new Whitehall-wide One Login System – and the Central Digital and Data Office, which is overseeing the implementation of the new cross-government digital strategy.

The commission will produce a final report next February proposing a set of reforms that it says will “radically improve” how the centre of government works. Ahead of that, it will identify key problems facing the centre of government and why they have not been solved.

O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011 – during which time he served prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – said the commission was a “timely initiative” with excellent commissioners.

“The centre of government has been organised in many different ways,” he said. “When it is working well, governments nearly always succeed. When it is dysfunctional the nation suffers.”

Hennessy said the “matter of the centre” had been a big question for British government since the creation of the Cabinet Office in 1916 and when Lord Haldane published his report on the machinery of government two years later. “I hope the new inquiry can be the Haldane of our time,” he said. “I think it can. I wish it luck as it picks its way through the bleached bones of previous attempts at reform.”

In 2021 the Commission for Smart Government, chaired by Conservative peer and former police minister Lord Nick Herbert, proposed a list of radical reforms, including the creation of a new Prime Minister’s Department to provide the centre of government with “greater strategic strength”.

That exercise, which counted former perm secs, ministers and special advisers among its commissioner ranks, also proposed changes beyond the machinery of government – including cutting civil service headcount to boost pay and scrapping the role of permanent secretary.

Jim Dunton

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