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20 January 2020

254: What would the Cummings reforms mean for public affairs?

Dominic Cummings’ plans for a radical overhaul of government has set pulses racing. For the first time since Mrs Thatcher had a go in the 1980s, the traditional workings of government could be seriously challenged. But what would such changes mean for public affairs?

Cummings’ blog on the proposals being considered secured plenty of media coverage but Rachel Wolf’s piece in the Daily Telegraph helps put the ideas in more context. Whilst talk of the need for more ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills’ caught the attention it has to be remembered that it is not unusual for a new government to come to office promising reform but then it doesn’t happen.

Some blame the inertia of the civil service for standing in the way of reform but usually politicians do not want to use up their political capital on reforming a system when there are no votes in it. There is also the financial cost of reform to consider which was one of the reasons Cameron was put off. Blair and Prescott created a ‘super department’ in the ‘Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions’. The idea was to streamline decision-making but simply bringing a whole group of disparate, even competing, civil servants together, just made it completely unwieldy.

So if we assume that some reform is coming the way of government, what would it mean for public affairs?

  • New Departments – any new or merged departments will take a period of time to bed down. Civil servants will need to find their feet and many may be looking to shift/retain roles. So there would be a short term impact, and potentially delays, even if delivery subsequently improves. We need to be aware of the impacts;
  • Closer to the electorate – as Wolf highlights ‘civil servants will be reoriented to the public’. But with that comes a need to shift our engagement messages as well. In other words, if the civil servants need to think about the electorate then so do we;
  • Stakeholders as usual? – no, far from it. It appears that the government will be less open to traditional vested interests such as the CBI and IoD so we need to consider which organisations to potentially work alongside. Individual organisations will need to retain a strong engagement presence themselves as well. Civil servants will need to demonstrate that they have listened to range of voices if they are to prove the ‘electorate’ part of any policy;
  • Advisers in charge? – there is no doubt that any new system will take time to bed down and even ‘police’. That could mean that advisers have more say. In any case, they will find that organisations report issues with the civil service to them; and
  • Fewer ministers – if the number of departments are reduced then fewer ministers will be required. That means that the competition for their attention will only intensify.

There is a theme developing of ‘more politics’. Some have suggested that we can learn from the US system of appointments. That, taken together with talk of looking at the ‘broader aspects of our constitution’ including ‘the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts’ from the conservative manifesto, shows that government could look quite different by the time of the next general election. We could be in quite a different policy-making place.

But whatever forms may be introduced, we need to remember that politicians will want to retain complete control and when put under pressure on an issue they need to retain the power to intervene so that the smack of firm government can be shown.

Reforms have failed before. Maybe Cummings and Johnson really are different. Maybe they are the ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills’ that we need.

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