Prime ministers often complain that the rest of government fails to deliver their agenda – Cameron recently griped about the ‘buggeration factor’ and Blair famously referred to the ‘scars on my back’.
But after the election, whoever is PM needs to invest in the unglamorous but essential topic of Whitehall reform, or be complicit in the likely failure to deliver on their election promises.
The next government faces repeating a common mistake of over-promising on the campaign trail and under-delivering in office, the Institute for Government cautions in a new paper. In All in it Together, the independent think tank says that a new administration can hope to break this cycle by building on the existing long-term reform initiatives – which are only now starting to address the entrenched weaknesses found across government departments.
A sustained focus across parliaments can address issues such as a lack of crucial financial and commercial civil service skills, recognised as a problem since the 1960s. Fifty years on, these historic concerns have not been resolved, and Whitehall’s to-do list is only getting longer as it faces new challenges in areas such as digital technology.
Julian McCrae, Deputy Director of the Institute for Government, said:
“We’ve started to make progress after five years of having a strong minister in charge of Whitehall reform. It would be tragic if we went back to how this agenda was treated before – with 12 ministers in 13 years, obviously unable to provide continuity and drive.
“Without clear political leadership from the outset, politicians will likely find by mid-term that they are failing to achieve the changes they want, and become increasingly frustrated with Whitehall’s lack of capacity to deliver.”
The paper highlights specific areas of Whitehall reform to focus on, including the importance of having skilled people working on government priorities across departments, and keeping them in post for the duration of a project. It is also vital that someone is made responsible for keeping a project on track, which means sorting problems when they emerge rather than sweeping them under the carpet.
The IfG also states if an incoming PM wants to make a clear statement that they are serious about this agenda, they will put a strong ministerial leader in charge of these reforms from day one in office.