How can collaboration across government really work if the UK government is to deliver on its net-zero promises, pandemic planning, levelling up, social care, Brexit, and the other big issues of the day? And how do you stop different priorities like budgets, strategic objectives and structures from getting in the way of that collaboration?
Alex Thomas has a thorough understanding of government from the inside. And now he has an independent vantage point from outside government. He is a Programme Director at the Institute for Government (IfG), leading its work on policymaking and the civil service. “The IfG is all about making government more effective,” he explains. In this role, Thomas draws on his former roles in the Cabinet Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department of Health and Social Care.
He points to two pieces of IfG work. The first focuses on collaboration across government in relation to net zero and the second relates to government reform generally.
In September 2020, Alex’s colleagues at the IfG published a report that called for a unit in the Cabinet Office to lead and coordinate the net zero agenda. A unit would not be enough, though, and the report emphasises that the support of the Prime Minister is vital. This report warned that meeting its net zero commitment is a more difficult challenge for the UK government than responding to COVID or Brexit as it requires transformation in the UK economy, investment over three decades and changes to the lives of private individuals. The report also said that a lack of coordinated policies, constant changes of direction, a failure to gain public consent for measures, and too little engineering expertise and delivery capability has left the UK well off track to meet its net zero target.
The second piece of work is a response Thomas prepared in July 2021 to the Commission for Smart Government. In it he said: “The UK government’s ability to manage risks and respond to shocks; the way decisions are made, executed and communicated; the way different levels of government interact; and the accountability of ministers and senior officials have all been found lacking in the pandemic response.”
Thomas supported the Commission for Smart Government’s ideas, such as modernising the centre of government, improving the skills of civil servants, and being clearer about accountability for ministerial and civil service performance. And he agreed that ministers, civil servants and officials across the public sector should be treated less as separate tribes
and more as fellow professionals who have different roles in serving the public.
However, Thomas called for further action around government reform, including more work to set out how to establish the distinct accountability of ministers and officials, and putting the civil service and government ethical oversight mechanisms on a more secure footing.
Perhaps Brexit was one of the first real tests of coordinated government since World War II. What did the UK government do? It put in place The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) – a ministerial department that existed from 14 July 2016 to 31 January 2020 and was responsible for overseeing negotiations to leave the EU.
“DExEU had a really difficult task,” says Thomas. “I don't think it was the right way of organising the government because it was a mix of coordination and direction from the centre, while trying to do quite a lot of the work itself and second-guess departments. Even more damagingly, the authority for running the Brexit programmes was split between the Prime Minister in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, and the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU in DExEU. That created no end of tensions and complications, and it wasn't always terribly functional.”
He says that one of the mistakes that was made in relation to Brexit was the termination of the European and Global Issues Secretariat – a small, but powerful group in the Cabinet Office that had the authority of the Prime Minister behind it. It was a unit that didn't try to do everything itself. This was an example of a strong but small centre that was folded into a bigger department, damaging its authority.
Drawing on this theme, Thomas says what the net zero agenda needs behind it is the authority of an explicitly mandated Cabinet Office team. “In the end, in the British Government, it all comes back to the authority of the Prime Minister,” he says. “We can talk about bureaucratic or organisational solutions to climate change – and I think it's important to do so – but if the strategy is not working as well as it should on net zero, and the trade-offs aren't really being exposed and managed within government, it requires the Prime Minister to prioritise it over everything else.”
On a more positive note, Thomas points out that net zero is a good metric to work with. “Public sector metrics are rarely as straightforward as carbon emissions,” he says. “For all the challenges it should be relatively straightforward to come up with a target and a plan, but it really needs the authority of a Cabinet Office team to corral it.”
He speaks of the varying objectives of different government departments – for example the target to build houses on the Ministry if Housing of Housing Communities and Local Government – and that the net zero objective must sit alongside those and be prioritised at the top for it to get purchase on ministerial decisions in departments. “Those structural decisions about government do matter, because they can tilt decisions in different ways,” he points out. “There's a sort of alchemy between politics and political will, and action and leadership, alongside the administration of a system that tilts decisions in a particular way because of priorities. This tilting is when you achieve actual change.”
Turning to the UK experience of the COVID pandemic, Thomas says that pandemic influenza had been on the National Risk Register long before the COVID outbreak. It was part of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat's planning. “While there are really important differences between a new Coronavirus and influenza, the fact that pandemic influenza was on the National Risk Register – and firmly on the radar of the Department of Health, and the central Cabinet Office team – it is a telling failure of government that departments across Whitehall didn’t have more plans to respond,” he says.
“The classic example – in relation to COVID – for me is education. It’s clear that the Department for Education did not have a contingency plan for pandemic influenza in place. That says to me that contingency planning for each issue was put in its own box and was not properly considered by policy teams who were working on issues that would be affected by a pandemic,” he says.
Thomas calls for a collective process of agreeing a government’s agenda which sets clear objectives for different government departments, and which shows how those objectives support the government's policy and operational programme. That relies on good metrics so that those who sit at the centre of government can advise the Prime Minister on when to intervene and when to trust the department in question.
“On the Prime Minister’s side, you need clear direction from the top which informs the measures to be undertaken by different departments,” he says. Levelling up is an example of a policy initiative that fails or succeeds in this way.
As for public sector accounts, can they be used to improve transparency and drive outcomes? “While they provide a scrutiny function, I'm not sure they ever really get purchase on the policy function,” Thomas says. For him, successful public sector collaboration across departments relies on a centralised – albeit small – function that can drive cross-government initiatives – but they must have the support of the Prime Minister.
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