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IFG: Transition 2010: David Laws, Nick Boles and Matt Tee discuss lessons learned

A panel including former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, Nick Boles, MP, and former Permanent Secretary for Government Communications, Matt Tee will discuss their first-hand experiences of the transition of power following last year’s General Election.

It comes as an Institute for Government report warns that the run up to 2015 could be fractious with tensions growing amongst the Coalition partners as they step up campaigning. The report authors, Peter Riddell and Catherine Haddon will also take part in the panel.

In Transitions: Lessons Learned they revisit the General Election and its immediate aftermath. They reflect that without a clear winner in 2010, “the politicians resolved the situation within five days and the first coalition for 65 years was created”. The Civil Service also adapted quickly to this unexpected situation so that the new Government could quickly get into its stride. However, the report argues if the election result had been slightly different, there could have been a long political stalemate and the impartiality of the Civil Service could have been compromised.

Lessons learned

In the early days of the new administration, mistakes were made by politicians and civil servants alike.  On the political side, “for all the hype, pre-election work on the implementation of policies was neither as well thought-out nor as complete as claimed” and this has “raised questions about whether the preparations were of the right type and involved the right people, and hence whether the contacts with the civil service were deep and broad enough”.

The Whitehall machine adjusted well to the Coalition but this didn’t always satisfy the ambitions of ministers to “advance rapidly on all fronts”. In fact, says the report, for civil servants “it is difficult to say ‘no’, or suggest less haste, when you are trying to demonstrate a department’s competency and responsiveness to new ministers”.

Recommendations

In order to ensure that things go smoothly in 2015, the report makes several recommendations which include:

•    Officially sanctioned pre-election contact between Civil Service and opposition parties to start 12 months before the election date. Opposition parties should put forward plans for priority bills, as well as policies, ahead of the election.
•    The existence of the Coalition means that the Civil Service will have to treat the two governing parties in a similar way to the main Opposition party in pre-election contacts to discuss future policy proposals.
•    The main parties and the Cabinet Office should start considering now whether there is a role for experts from the civil service to support better scrutiny, and costing or advice, on Opposition parties’ manifesto policies.
•    The Cabinet Secretary should only facilitate, not be involved in, any post-election negotiations. The Civil Service will need to ensure that existing constraints on non-urgent ministerial activities during the election are maintained for the negotiation period.
•    There should be maximum possible continuity of personnel in both the political and Civil Service teams during the election and the transition to a new government.
•    For 2015, it will be even more necessary to re-visit advice to civil servants and politicians about the separation of government and political business, and use of the Civil Service, in the run-up to an election. This advice should be made public.

Debating the issues

These recommendations will be among the issues being at the event taking place at the Institute for Government on Monday 28th November, Report co-author, event chair and IfG Director-designate, Peter Riddell said:

“With David, Nick and Matt, we have a panel of experts who not only witnessed last year’s transition at close range but who were involved in the dramatic five days in May. The meeting provides an opportunity to test the view which Catherine Haddon and I express in the report that there was a lot of potential for things to go wrong and the fact that  they went right owed a lot to good luck as well as to good judgement.  In the light of the existence of the coalition, the panel will also look forward to the very different circumstances, and problems, ahead of the 2015 general election”.

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