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Here’s a better idea for reforming Whitehall

Treasury Building, Government Offices Great George Street, Westminster. Credit: Getty

January 8, 2020 - 8:28am

According to John Stevens in the Daily Mail, the big re-organisation of government departments has been “scaled back.”

I hope so, because exactly where you put up the partitions in Whitehall is besides the point. However much you move them around you’re still going to end up with a departmental structure that gets in the way of effective government.

You could reduce the number of partitions by having fewer, bigger departments. But that way you’d get a different kind of disconnection — i.e. over-stretched Secretaries of State struggling to stay on top of their sprawling responsibilities.

Why does Dominic Cummings want to reorganise Whitehall in the first place? Not for its own sake, surely — but to facilitate change.

The trick therefore is to start with the change you most want to achieve and design the government machinery around it. From my experience in government, I’d suggest the following approach:

To begin with, define your agenda as a series of special objectives — your top ten priorities. Then put one minister in charge of delivering each objective (and only that objective). These special ministers should be the most promising people in the government, as opposed to the most senior. Each should be supported by a dedicated policy / delivery unit, of something like fifty people — at least half of whom (including the unit’s head) would be recruited from outside the permanent civil service.

The units can be located wherever provides the most convenient access to the most relevant bits of the government machine, but they would report directly to Downing Street and the Cabinet Secretary. This is for two reasons: Firstly, to put them beyond the reach of petty departmental politics; and, secondly, to underline their cross-departmental remit.

Moreover, I’d locate the special ministers, plus their Cabinet colleagues, in the same building. The central, circular bit of GOGGS (Government Offices Great George Street, a.k.a. the Treasury building) would be ideal. The rationale is that ministers appointed to different departments would be able to meet easily and sort things out between them — without having their dealings filtered through their respective civil service minders.

These are just some of the reforms we need. But even on their own they’d achieve more than decades of messing around with Whitehall acronyms.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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