Influential think tank Institute for Government (IfG) has released its annual Whitehall Monitor, which analyses data on what has happened to government and politics over the past year. In doing so, it hopes to gain insight into what may be in store for the next 12 months - and this year’s report does not disappoint.
IfG notes that we are unlikely to face the tumult experienced in Parliament over the past three years, given the Conservative Party’s significant majority at pre-Christmas election. With the UK set to leave the EU at the end of January and with parliamentary stability on the cards, IfG argues that “a majority government should be able to gets its legislative business done”.
But what are likely to be areas of focus? According to Whitehall Monitor 2020, four key themes will be prioritised - the civil service workforce, reshuffling and reshaping government, major projects, and data and transparency.
Within these topics, two key points are likely to garner particular interest: that government is becoming less open (after years of pushing a transparency agenda) and that pay and promotion structures within the civil service need to be reformed.
By way of introduction, the report states:
The emphatic Conservative victory in the 2019 general election brings to an end a decade of government by coalition, minority and slender-majority government. A promise to ‘get Brexit done’, with the UK expected to leave the EU formally on 31 January 2020, marks the start of a new phase of negotiation and transition after the political tumult of the last three and a half years. It also brings renewed focus on the domestic agenda, and on the workings of government itself.
Civil service workforce
According to the Whitehall Monitor report, civil service staff numbers have increased in every quarter since the 2016 EU referendum, as the UK prepares for Brexit. The number working specifically on the UK’s exit from the EU have tripled since 2018.
However, influential figures - such as the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings - have touched on the issue of high turnover of civil servants, which the report states is “disruptive to the delivery of politicise and projects and to institutional memory”. It also costs £74 million a year in recruitment and lost productivity.
The latest figures indicate that turnover has increased in five departments over the past year. IfG states that senior civil service turnover is particularly damaging, where senior civil servants move roles, on average, less than every two years. This is even more so the case for those involved with Brexit, with 10 senior servants in charge of key aspects of Brexit policy changing roles in 2019.
Reform is needed. The IfG states:
If government wants to tackle the problems of high turnover, it will need – as the Institute for Government has recommended – to reform pay, promotion, rules on internal competition for jobs and its human resources policies generally. It also needs better data to understand and fix the problem. There is some progress on this count: departments will now be expected to publish turnover numbers in their annual reports and accounts. However, in 2018/19, only two departments did.
Reforms to pay, promotion and people management are subjects not only for individual government departments but also for the professions and functions responsible for particular skills and capabilities (like the digital, data and technology profession, DDaT, or the project delivery function) across government.
Data and transparency
Despite years of publicly promoting a drive towards increased transparency across Whitehall, the IfG report found that government is becoming less open.
Better government data matters for effectiveness, IfG states. This is true for almost any organisation. The more data you have, the better you can understand yourself and how you operate. Not only this, but transparent data matters for accountability, so that those in power can be held to account.
However, the report notes:
But there are warning signs of government becoming less open, and of data still being inadequate. Much of the ‘transparency data’ that departments are mandated to publish – for example, on the structure of their organisations and any spending over £25,000 – is published late, if at all. We have had freedom of information (FoI) requests to obtain some of this data refused – even by the Cabinet Office, the body responsible for telling other departments to publish this data.
Departments are also, in general, releasing less information in response to FoI requests than in the past. And the low quality, inconsistency and lack of availability of some data suggest that departments themselves cannot be using it. Between the long-expected National Data Strategy, and the new focus on the potential of data from within No.10, 2020 provides an opportunity for government to fix some of these problems.
The prime minister has asked Cabinet Ministers to review each of their department’s major projects, with the aim of rooting out waste across Whitehall.
IfG states that whilst increased public spending, after years of constraint feels inevitable, the government already has a lot on its plate - not only with Brexit.
The report argues that priorities will have to be decided and that political pressure may be a problem:
But government already has a lot to do. Away from Brexit, its major projects portfolio contains more than 130 projects, including large infrastructure projects like the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line and numerous other ICT and service-transformation projects within public services. Civil service leaders have long argued that government is ‘doing too much to do it well’. The government appears to recognise this, with the prime minister asking Cabinet ministers to go back to their departments and assess which projects could be scrapped – even if it means “slaughtering sacred cows”.
But with an ambitious and radical domestic agenda, including pledged investment across the Midlands and the north of England, the government will have a tough job picking priorities in the face of political pressure.
Reshuffling and reshaping government
Whilst Parliament is likely to be more stable over the coming years, thanks to the Conservative’s majority, IfG does recognise that there may be some disruption from changes to the personnel and profile of government departments once the UK has formally left the EU.
For example, the Department for Exiting the European Union will cease to exist on 31 January, bringing future negotiations under the prime minister’s control.
The report adds that there may be good reason for the new government to reshuffle ministers and “reshape organisations” - in order to stamp its authorities, bring together complementary policy areas and focus on top priorities.
However, this comes with its own challenges. The report notes:
But new ministers and new departments take time to adjust to one another – already three quarters of all government ministers have only been in their posts since July 2019 – and the process itself comes with considerable costs. These can be around £15m in direct costs for setting up a new department, and £34m in lost productivity. If the government does want to reshape the state through creating, merging or abolishing departments, it needs to be clear about what it actually wants to achieve.