Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for government efficiency and Brexit opportunities, recently wrote to his cabinet colleagues asking them by 24 June to identify public bodies that could be merged or closed.[i] He has also, along with the prime minister, gone on the warpath against the Passport Office and DVLA, threatening privatisation in response to delays in services.[ii]
It was in this context that the Cabinet Office launched its new public bodies review programme. Rees-Mogg’s foreword to the review guidance concluded: “I know departments and their public bodies will welcome this opportunity to ensure they are match fit.” [iii]
This review programme is strikingly similar to its predecessor, the 2015–20 “tailored reviews”, but with a few welcome changes. External reviewers will bring fresh challenge to priority reviews, although they must be seen to be impartial. A commitment to review both sides of the relationship between department and public body is important. The “self-assessment model” that will determine whether a full review of each body is needed will aid prioritisation – although scores will be aggregated based on the answers to many incommensurable questions and public bodies will fear that decision makers may follow these scores blindly (they should not).
Some fault lines inherent in the predecessor programme remain. Notwithstanding provisions for external oversight, implementation is delegated to departments who will to some extent be marking their own homework. Reviews are still detailed exercises that will assess public bodies against a lot of discrete requirements. A clear focus on what matters most will be required.
The substance of the review programme involves evaluating the efficacy, governance, accountability and efficiency of existing bodies – exploring such questions as whether a body has a clear complaints procedure, mitigates fraud risk effectively, makes an induction available to new board members, or has specific and measurable annual objectives.
These things matter, but can generally be addressed by public body management and departmental sponsors. It is possible – and envisaged – that reviews might identify significant failings, in response to which bodies might need to be restructured or abolished, but such radical change is not the primary target of a routine review process. Questions of whether government should provide a service at all, or whether a public body is the best way to provide it, are of a different order. Rees-Mogg’s discussion of mergers and closures raises these wider questions – but, unhelpfully, it does so before the Cabinet Office’s public bodies strategy, which would be a more appropriate and systematic vehicle for them, has been developed.
While it is perhaps unsurprising that Rees-Mogg’s foreword – with its focus on abolishing unnecessary bodies, minimising functions and returning powers to ministers – sits uneasily with the review programme itself, the juxtaposition is potentially damaging. The aims Rees-Mogg identifies are more relevant to his consultation with cabinet colleagues than to the review programme. Conflating the two risks imbuing the programme with a sense of existential threat for the public bodies involved and distracting from the substantive work of actually improving day-to-day performance.
Rees-Mogg’s stated aim to save 5% on average through the review process – a bigger ask than it sounds – could also discourage public bodies and departments from putting forward opportunities for improvement (many of which would come at a price, at least in the short term). Such opportunities do not seem to be a priority. Indeed, the phrase “Brexit opportunities”, though part of Rees-Mogg’s new ministerial title, does not appear anywhere in the substance of the guidance. It is also unclear where opportunities to increase resilience by learning from the pandemic might feature.
Rees-Mogg should now clearly decouple his interest in what services could be abolished, merged or transferred to the private sector from the more day-to-day aspects of the public bodies review programme. He should, in short, lower the stakes. He should also seek proposals for improvement, independently of his cost-saving objective, during the reviews.
Separately, determining the future role and scope of public bodies – and whether the significant costs of creating, merging or abolishing them are worth incurring – requires creative thinking that goes beyond the sort of ideas that will be elicited by a letter requesting cuts. Whether through the development of a public bodies strategy or through Rees-Mogg’s accelerated process, the government has yet to show that it can think dispassionately about these questions without pre-judging the outcome.
[i] Malnick E, ‘Quangos face the axe under Jacob Rees-Mogg’s cost-cutting plan’, The Telegraph, 23 April 2022, www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2022/04/23/quangos-could-shut-merged-jacob-rees-mogg-cost-cutting-plan/
[ii] Rees-Mogg J, ‘The only place to fine-tune Whitehall’s Rolls-Royce is in the office’, The Mail on Sunday, 23 April 2022, www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-10747231/JACOB-REES-MOGG-place-fine-tune-Whitehalls-Rolls-Royce-office.html; BBC, ‘Boris Johnson threatens to privatise Passport Office’, BBC News, 26 April 2022, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-61233206
[iii] Cabinet Office, ‘Guidance on the undertaking of Reviews of Public Bodies’, Gov.uk, 26 April 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-bodies-review-programme/guidance-on-the-undertaking-of-reviews-of-public-bodies