Cabinet Office ‘tries to do too many things’, according to departing chief

Outgoing permanent secretary Alex Chisholm has told MPs – in possibly his last select committee appearance – that the central department can find it difficult to manage its wide variety of expertise

Soon-to-depart Cabinet Office permanent secretary Sir Alex Chishom has told MPs his department might have too many responsibilities – but that the issue will be one for future political leaders to address.

His observations came at an evidence session before members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, likely to be his last appearance in front of the panel before he steps down as perm sec and civil service chief operating officer in April.

In a question archetypal of an exit interview, PACAC chair William Wragg asked Chisholm what his perceptions of the department’s “faults and failings” were. The perm sec initially sought to give an indirect answer, based on what others might say, but gave his opinion when prompted.

“What I would say is that we try and do probably too many things,” Chisholm said. “If you look at the span of the Cabinet Office, there are probably around 40 different business units. We’ve got people working in the Cabinet Office who are experts in property development, people who are doing huge procurement – there’s a great commercial background, people who are constitutional experts, people who are working on the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. Wherever you look across the Cabinet Office, you see terrific heterogeneity. And that means that as a department it can be quite difficult to manage, sometimes to work in, and to have a strong identity because we’re trying to do so many things. If you try and do so many things, it’s difficult to be sure that you’re doing them to the best possible standard.”

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Among the department’s most visible units are the Government Digital Service and Central Digital and Data Office, which employ in the region of 800 people between the two bodies, while also overseeing and directing the digitisation throughout departments and the work of about 28,000 digital and data professionals.

Wragg asked Chisholm whether there was a sense that the “particular fancies” of the prime minister of the day drove the size of the Cabinet Office, or if there were things that could simply be best managed at the centre of government.

“I think it’s a mixture of prime ministerial priorities and the circumstances you find yourselves in, and that efficiency-type argument,” the perm sec responded.

He said David Cameron’s decision to set up the National Security Council with a secretariat centred in the Cabinet Office was an example of a No.10-led drive to relocate responsibilities from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence.

But Chisholm said circumstances were a “much bigger” driver for change than prime-ministerial “fancies”.

“It wasn’t fancy that caused us to set up the Covid Taskforce; it was need, driven by external circumstances,” he said. “We made a huge effort to try and deal with the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both from a point of view of helping Ukraine but also the knock-on effects on energy and the cost of living, and so on.”

He added: “There is clearly a strong argument for trying to consolidate in one place services that previously were done 24 times over in different Whitehall departments, and in some cases used to be done across 300 or 400 public bodies and are now done in one place really well. Having a Government Recruitment Service which does 70% of the recruitment for the whole of the civil service, having in one place a real kernel of excellence for property and commercial services and for digital services makes huge [sense]. I think it will be a matter of the taste of a future prime minister or this prime minister and the future leaders of the Cabinet Office whether all of that needs to be done in the Cabinet Office itself.”

Jim Dunton

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