Dominic Cummings threatened a ‘hard rain’ to wash away the civil servants he saw as internal opposition to government reform. Michael Gove combined that zeal with more soothing words and a collaborative style. The prime minister called for the civil service to move “faster” and has warned that “we won’t be shy of reform where it is necessary”. With Johnson’s reformer-in-chief reshuffled, Stephen Barclay is now the minister in the Cabinet Office charged with turning those ambitions into reality.
Barclay won’t grab the headlines like Cummings or Gove, but that can be to his advantage. Gove declared a determination to shake up the way government is run and set out a plan for how to make it happen. Barclay has the chance to focus on implementation, but he first needs to demonstrate a commitment to the cause – and the prime minister needs to back him.
At first sight Boris Johnson’s reshuffle reveals a declining enthusiasm for government reform. Michael Gove had brought his singular rhetoric and understanding of the levers of government power to the Cabinet Office, with his ‘declaration of government reform’ backed by the prime minister and cabinet secretary. Moving Gove removes a charismatic frontman.
However, reform in government happens not because of stirring speeches but with sustained, incremental improvements. And Barclay has the right CV to be a successful reformer. As secretary of state at the Department for Exiting the EU he saw some of the more dysfunctional parts of government first-hand. And as chief secretary to the Treasury for the last 18 months he will have had sight of every department and the chance to analyse their strengths and weaknesses.
Gove set the agenda and created momentum, but Barclay is not inheriting a definitive plan. He can improve upon it using his experience of government, building on the gaps in Gove’s work and injecting his own views on reform.
In a speech last year Barclay urged the Treasury to be “the new radicals” and warned that “too often we have been behind the curve when it comes to obtaining, analysing and enabling open access to data”. Working out how to use real time data in services and rebuilding digital infrastructure in the public sector is unglamorous work, but it is essential for the running of successful modern government.
So Barclay’s enthusiasm is welcome, and he now has the opportunity to turn his radical aims in to reality. The reform declaration promised to “bring greater clarity to the roles, responsibilities and accountability of ministers and senior officials when taking decisions” but did not say how. It also reinforced the government’s “commitment to the highest standards of propriety” without giving more detail.
Setting out how and where civil servants should be held accountable for their performance would mean more effective government, as would adopting many of the recommendations about propriety from the recent Boardman report on lobbying and transparency. These are areas where Barclay should think big and try to leave a lasting mark on British government.
The biggest threat to success is whether Barclay can find enough time to give political leadership to reform. His job as the prime minister’s policy broker and likely chair of multiple cabinet committees means that there will always be more urgent crises to attend to, or arguments to defuse. Throughout the Cameron government the role Barclay now holds was split, with Oliver Letwin doing the brokering and Francis Maude focusing on reform. With policy on the union and ‘levelling up’ moving with Michael Gove, Barclay has the luxury of a narrower brief than his predecessor, but he will still have to juggle multiple priorities.
Building on the Gove approach of working in partnership rather than in opposition to senior civil servants will help relieve some of the burden. The cabinet secretary Simon Case and the chief operating officer Alex Chisholm may find they take on more responsibility to shape the reform programme. But there is no substitute for direct ministerial involvement when it comes to civil service reform.
Gove’s reform declaration included 30 action points, to be completed by the end of 2021. Some were already well underway when the document was published, like a new training curriculum for government and setting out departmental relocations. Others were vague like ensuring data is “as open as possible”. Whether or not Barclay races to tick them all off by the end of the year, and how he sets out his own plans for government reform, will send a clear message to the civil service and the rest of the government about how seriously both he and the prime minister are taking the job.