In the wake of the 2019 general election, with Michael Gove the most senior minister in the Cabinet Office and Dominic Cummings installed as the prime minister’s chief adviser, government reform looked set to be a priority for Boris Johnson’s administration. Gove’s Ditchley Lecture on government reform in June 2020 set the scene for an ambitious change programme, and in June 2021 the government’s reform plan, the Declaration on Government Reform, was launched. Signed by the prime minister and cabinet secretary, it set out the government’s proposals on how to improve its own operation.
The Declaration contains a good level of ambition, even if it is vague in places. But there is a gap between that ambition and the plans in place to get there. Nearly a year on, with Gove reshuffled and Cummings long gone from No. 10, a new IfG paper finds that the promised focus on government reform is at risk of stalling. Progress towards the vision in the Declaration has been limited. Less than a third of 30 actions were delivered by the end of the 2021/22 financial year, an already extended deadline, despite the fact that some actions were limited in their ambition and many were already underway when the Declaration was published.
Despite mitigating circumstances – with the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a series of self-inflicted scandals over standards in public life all taking up plenty of time and ministerial attention – it is wrong for government reform to slip down the list of priorities. Government reform is not an abstract activity; it affects the real-world outcomes experienced by citizens across the country. A government that works better is one that has more chance of making a success of its priorities like levelling up, Global Britain and net zero, while also having the capacity to handle inevitable crises. But the Declaration is in danger of being yet another government reform plan that identifies the same big problems and subsequently fails to solve them.
Time, money and political capital are scarce resources in government. It is important for a reform process to use them in the most efficient way. But the most visible administrative reform currently being pursued by the government is a drive to get civil servants to return to the office. It is right for civil servants to spend more time working in-person than during the depths of the pandemic, and in some departments the process of returning to the office is happening too slowly. But this is a second order issue. According to the Government Property Agency, Covid proved ‘that in most cases desk-based work can be done effectively at home’.
Instead, ministers – and by extension, senior civil servants – need to focus on the really big problems, which their own reform plan did a good job of outlining. Bold change is needed in four critical areas where failings will hold the government back from dealing with crises and delivering on its agenda.
Those priorities should be: accountability, staff churn, increasing outside recruitment and building a ‘smarter centre’ of government. The civil service should prioritise employing the right people (including those with experience outside central government and with specialist or unusual skills), keeping them in post long enough to acquire subject expertise and institutional memory, strengthening the capacity of the centre so it can set clear direction, and making clear who is accountable for success or failure in delivering government objectives. All four of these themes are emphasised in the Declaration, but insufficient progress has been made. And the first two are made harder by an evangelical approach to getting staff back into the office. The government will not be able to recruit and retain the people it wants, especially those with digital and data skills, if it forces all civil servants back into the office full-time.
To inject fresh momentum behind reform – and ultimately, to deliver on their policy agenda – the government should launch a new set of more ambitious reform actions, alongside the outcomes they are expected to achieve and a plan to deliver them to appropriate deadlines.
These actions will need to be tightly focused – our research into civil service reform demonstrates the importance of concentrating on a limited number of well-resourced interventions. The actions will also need to be mutually reinforcing, with many of the thorniest problems facing government being the product of lots of interacting factors. For example, staff churn is caused by constraints on increasing salary in post, a failure to properly communicate and enforce expected tenure lengths, a lack of formal career development, a sense that moving quickly and between departments is the best route to a senior role, and more. Problems like these will not be tackled by focusing on just one or two of their causes.
While changes to the way government works might seem far removed from the ordinary citizen, nothing could be further from the truth. Administrative reform has slipped down the government’s list of priorities. But, ten months after the Declaration on Government Reform was launched, it must rise up it once again.
Anything to declare? A progress report on the Declaration on Government Reform – and what should come next was published on April 22.