Reform vital for government to meet policy goals while managing crises, finds IfG's annual Whitehall report
Major reform is needed for government to respond to crises like the pandemic while simultaneously delivering long-term policy goals, says the Institute for Government’s annual report into the size, shape and workings of government.
Drawing on publicly available data on spending, staffing and transparency and our own research, the IfG’s annual stocktake is unique – the government does not produce a similar report for itself or for parliament.
The ninth edition of Whitehall Monitor, published yesterday, reveals how the government has been handling the Covid crisis while at the same time trying to make progress on priorities such as levelling up and hitting net zero. New employment support schemes and the vaccination programme were delivered rapidly, but progress on pre-pandemic priorities was limited. The political storm around the Sue Gray inquiry is now threatening to badly distract from Boris Johnson’s core agenda.
The report warns that without fundamental reform – such as clarifying ministerial and civil service accountability, better data, improving transparency and ensuring a targeted workforce plan underpins its goal of up to 55,000 civil service job cuts by 2025 – government will continue being knocked off course when faced with shocks to the system. And whatever happens as a result of the prime minister’s current troubles, with a looming cost of living crisis, ongoing Covid challenges, and crunch Brexit deadlines and decisions ahead, 2022 will bring further strain.
Whitehall Monitor 2022 shows how over the last year:
- The civil service grew rapidly: in September 2021 there were 472,700 civil servants – a 10% increase on the year before. It is now as big as it was in 2010 before the staffing cuts made by the coalition.
- Every department except the Foreign Office grew between 2020 and 2021, and the Department of Health and Social Care nearly doubled in size between September 2020 and 2021.
- For the second year in a row government spending is expected to top £1 trillion, though spending on the pandemic will be lower and more narrowly targeted on the NHS.
- In July 2021 the number of special advisers reached 117, the highest ever. Cabinet ministers can have a maximum of two SpAds unless they get permission from the prime minister, but as of July 2021 17 of 26 ministers with special advisers (excluding the prime minister) had more than two.
- Across the 2019–21 parliamentary session MPs asked 18% more questions than in the previous parliament. Departments had to field a total of 331 questions per Commons sitting day, higher than at any other point in the last decade.
- Even allowing for the strains placed on government by the pandemic, the approach of the Johnson administration to transparency limits scrutiny. The majority of Freedom of Information requests were either partially or fully withheld, rising from 55.2% of all resolvable FoI requests in the first quarter of 2021 to 56.1% in the second quarter.
- As of the September reshuffle, only nine ministers were appointed to their posts by David Cameron or Theresa May, showing the prime minister’s efforts to differentiate his team and government from that of his predecessors.
Rhys Clyne, IfG senior researcher and report author, said:
“2021 saw the government get bigger – with a 10% increase in the number of civil servants and spending topping £1 trillion for the second year running. Whatever happens in 2022, if the government is going to be able to achieve its priorities before the next election, the next year needs to see an urgent shift from making plans to delivering results.”
Alice Lilly IfG senior researcher and report author, said:
“If ministers want to achieve lasting change, government reform is still needed to improve transparency, accountability and the way the government uses data. But the time and energy the government is spending on its response to scandals will make delivering its long-term priorities harder.”
Notes for editors
A link to the full report can be found on our website.
The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
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