The political system in the UK seems to be in a state of revolution. Some are predicting a state of almost permanent change. It is assumed by some that this will empower unelected officials who will then make the kind of decisions that impact upon business. The question we are most often asked therefore, amidst this uncertainty, is who will win the election?
Whilst in conversation with LSE and UEA political scientists yesterday, I was told that their models predicted that the Conservatives would win the popular vote in May but that Labour would have more parliamentary seats. However, they would still most likely need to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to form a majority.
This would cause immense difficulties for the Liberal Democrats – think of their problems last time when the position was very clear; the Tories had the highest share of the popular vote and had the most seats. The Liberal democrats have been pilloried – the uproar this time could be huge.
The civil service, particularly the Cabinet Secretary will need to handle this with extreme dexterity. The political situation could cause uncertainty that will make government much more difficult. This is at a time when Universal Credit, the Health and Social Care Act, and a range of other major reforms are bedding down. Moreover, civil service reformers like Francis Maude MP, the cabinet office minister, are stepping down – his business reforms and attention to detail will be missed.
So where does that leave the mandarins of Whitehall?
John Manzoni, the new business minded Chief Executive of the Civil Service gave a speech to the Institute for Government recently where he outlined his priorities.
His first priority is getting good people into Whitehall, keeping them there, and training them. Central to achieving this, Manzoni said, is his second priority: developing functional leadership. This means having people responsible for building capability in vital functions – including finance, projects, commercial, communications and legal. “We could leave this to departments, but it’s far more powerful to do it centrally … reaching across department boundaries,” said Manzoni. Departments who don’t want to play ball should take note of his warning: “we should maintain existing control mechanisms with a view to evolving them to a more standards based approach”.
The third priority he set out was performance management. “For a system which delivers so much,” Manzoni reflected, “we don’t yet have a well-developed performance management culture”. The civil service needed “mechanisms which performance manage outcomes and which at the same time reinforce and clarify accountability” – though he didn’t mention previous attempts at doing this through public service agreements or departmental business plans.
Manzoni referred to the first set of published permanent secretary objectives explaining, that in his view, that they were far too long. This year’s objectives are much more succinct and are important for business to examine.
The fourth priority Manzoni identified was leadership. Supporting and harnessing confident “big leaders” in the civil service is essential to his vision: “without them I certainly cannot achieve what I have set out”. He showed frustration at government being “remarkably unjoined up” when “the future will demand a greater degree of collaboration” – both between departments, and between the centre and departments. Following the aftermath of the next election will be the next spending review. This will be a critical test of their ability to collaborate – something made harder by the way the Treasury runs reviews.
A weak political class will find it more difficult to rule the roost and make government more effective from a policy point of view. This will raise problems. If the connection between political priorities and reform is not made, the likely tendency of the rest of the system – not least the Treasury – is to ignore reform and fall back on the established way of doing things.
It is clear to us that nobody will win the election.
This article was originally published last Friday in Whitehall Weekly. You can subscribe here.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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