With the polls hanging firmly in the balance it would take a bold commentator to predict who will enter 10 Downing Street on May 8. What is clear, however, is that any new government will face a range of challenges that are almost unparalleled in modern times. Not only are they likely to have to cobble together a coalition, perhaps with old foes, but they will also have to cope with new measures to reduce wastage at the heart of government and ensure that more can be done with less.
Murmurings around Whitehall suggest that Civil Service reform could remain on the agenda to increase resource sharing and save cash wherever possible. This would certainly be no mean feat and any reforms are likely to come up against strong opposition from civil servants themselves. Ken Livingston once remarked that “the Civil Service are risk averse” and he is far from being the only politician to have complained of having to clear bureaucratic hurdles while trying to govern. Just two weeks ago the Prime Minister himself complained of the “buggeration factor” of pushing policies past Whitehall’s legion of mandarins.
In June 2012, the then-leaders of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake, launched the civil service reform plan, in conjunction with Cabinet Office Minister, Sir Francis Maude. While the plan was promoted as a guide to institute wholesale organisational change, a closer reading revealed a focus on improving human resources and streamlining IT systems. Perhaps the biggest aspect of the reform plan was the creation of The Government Digital Service and a commitment to becoming “digital by default.” It was hoped that by using digital systems shared across departments, central government could reduce the silo-mentality and join up “all parts of Whitehall” into a forward-facing entity.
Although this project has not been entirely successful, the announcement that efficiencies worth £11 billion have already been identified in 2015 indicates its successes and potential going forward. There is, of course, some risk that with the Coalition’s initiatives not yet delivering their full potential that a new government would opt to scrap them entirely: the search for perfection overriding continuity. Such action would be imprudent and serve to continue the age old cycle of reform failing to reach fruition.
Certainly Labour’s goals of establishing “a new delivery and performance regime at the heart of government to build a stronger centre and…ensure better coordination” are unduly vague. The risk is that in a bid to be seen to do something to improve the state’s nimbleness, the pattern of instituting new, centralised reforms will continue.
The growing clamour of voices calling for greater devolution to the regions suggest that politicians would do well to look less at reform on Whitehall, and more towards the distributing power at a local level. It is notable that to date the government’s own progress report on changes to the Civil Service have not mentioned how it would interact with city-regions, or the possibilities these could create.
Certainly there is an argument to be had as to whether individual cities would be better placed to achieve savings on services and to institute policies in a more flexible manner. Tellingly, Sir Bob Kerslake has himself urged Whitehall to “embrace” devolution, warning that a centralised state “crowds out the space for strategic thinking.”
After the General Election politicians and commentators, whatever their hue, would do well to consider the future of government itself and to reflect on the necessity of overarching, centralised reform to achieve efficiency savings. A more considered approach, perhaps reflecting the emerging trend towards devolution, would not go amiss, nor would a more conciliatory analysis of how government and opposition can work together to achieve results. While savings in Whitehall should, of course, be welcomed they should not come at the expense of good governance, nor be carried out instead of wider strategic reform at a national level.
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