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Home / News and Insights / Insights / The Commission on the Centre of Government’s final report – is now the time to restore the centre of government to its former glory?

The Institute for Government’s (IfG) Commission on the Centre of Government (Commission), published its final report (Report), Power With Purpose, on 10 March 2024.

The Report provides a detailed analysis of the challenges facing the government’s decision-making processes and proposes ‘seven radical reforms’ to address what the Commission considers an outdated centre of government. It examines the dysfunctionality of No.10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the potential disproportionality in power exerted by the Treasury.

It is interesting to note that the Report shares some of the same sentiments expressed in the Maude Report, which was commissioned and published by the Conservative Government in 2023 and considered the shortcomings of the centre of government, albeit in a more political context.

The IfG established the Commission with the objective of examining the centre of government and recommending practical measures to enhance and modernise its operations. The Commission is comprised of several key figures, including Dr Hannah White (OBE, Director of the Institute for Government), Sir Anthony Seldon, Baroness Louise Casey of Blackstock, and Rt Hon Sajid Javid.

In this post, we summarise the Commission’s proposals, and how they have been received, and consider what fine-tuning may be needed if they are to be implemented following the upcoming General Election.

‘The centre has become disconnected from the lives of citizens on whose behalf it works.’ (Commission on the Centre of Government’s final report)

Commission’s recommendations

  1. The government to establish its ‘Priorities for Government’ at the start of a Parliament and announce them as part of a modernised King’s Speech.
  2. The Prime Minister to appoint an Executive Cabinet Committee, consisting of a few key senior ministers, who would distil the Priorities for Government and recommend them to the full Cabinet.
  3. The Prime Minister to appoint a new Senior First Secretary of State who would work closely with the Chancellor and chair the Civil Service Board (CSB), replacing the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
  4. The Cabinet Office and No.10 Downing Street to be restructured into a Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and a separate Department for the Civil Service (DCS).
  5. The DPMC would offer strategic support to the Prime Minister and be better able to devolve and decentralise policy to other departments, public bodies, and tiers of government.
  6. The DCS would take on the leadership, management, and capability of the civil service, including the teams responsible for setting and enforcing functional standard of practice, civil service talent, learning and development, and modernisation and reform.
  7. Introduction of a new Civil Service Act to set out the rights and powers of the DCS and the creation of the Civil Service Board to hold the civil service leadership accountable, particularly as regards reform.
  8. The roles of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service to be filled by separate individuals. The Cabinet Secretary would lead the DPMC, working with the Prime Minister’s Principal Civil Service Adviser, and the Head of the Civil Service would lead the DCS. Both the Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the Civil Service would participate in the Executive Committee and work closely to advise on the government’s priorities.
  9. Government’s priorities to be fully reflected in a shared strategy, budget, and performance management process at the centre of government. To ensure that the Priorities for Government are transposed into a logical strategy, and the new shared, strategy, budget, and performance management process is overseen by the secretariat in the DPMC. The Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the Civil Service, as well as the Treasury Permanent Secretary, would be fully involved in resource allocation.

Initial reaction: the good

There is much to commend in the Commission’s recommendations:

  • The introduction of the DPMC and DCS has the potential to restore the damaged reputation of the Cabinet Office, owing to its swollen size, confused remit, and most recently, the evidence presented in the Covid Inquiry, among other factors.
  • The enactment of a Civil Service Act that clearly sets out the rights and responsibilities of the Head of the Civil Service, accompanied by the introduction of the CSB, offers a logical solution to enhancing the efficiency of both these responsibilities.
  • The proposal for the Prime Minister to appoint a Senior First Secretary of State could provide much needed support to the Prime Minister’s vision and decision-making (although it may prove difficult to attract a senior Cabinet colleague to a ‘go between’ role rather than one of the Great Offices of State).

… the bad …

However, the Commission’s proposal for the creation of a formal Executive Cabinet Committee (#2 above) was not welcomed. The former Prime Ministers, Rt Hon Sir John Major and Gordon Brown, who attended the launch event of the Commission’s Report, expressed a unanimous opinion that the Report fails to adequately address the nuanced and intricate reality of Cabinet meetings, rendering this recommendation, in its proposed form, less feasible to implement in practice. While this recommendation on paper would appear to offer a logical solution to address Cabinet meetings that over time have become disproportionately large, such a proposal carries the inherent risk of creating an environment of turning a Cabinet against itself, which would disrupt the collegiate working culture of the Cabinet Office. Furthermore, it could add another layer of complexity to cabinet reshuffles.

Sir John Major, in his speech suggested that, alternatively, the Prime Minister could create an informal Cabinet subcommittee of appropriate ministers or ad-hoc ministers, chaired by the Prime Minister. In his view, these arrangements have worked well in the past. The IfG disagree. While agreeing that that ‘every Prime Minister makes the biggest decisions in small groups’, they consider ‘a proper forum would inject rigor into decisions that are too often taken informally.’

… and the middling

The ex-PMs were split on the proposed segregation of the duties of the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. According to Sir John Major, the civil service is the crux of the government – its beating heart. To appoint a separate Head of Civil Service who does not have daily and direct contact with the Prime Minister would spell disaster.

Gordon Brown, however, supported the case for the creation of two separate roles (one for the creation of policies and one for the implementation of policies), stating that this would enhance the efficacy of both roles.

In our view, Gordon Brown’s reasoning is more compelling: under the current structure, one person’s focus and output is divided between two very crucial roles which inevitably raises the question of divided attention in fulfilment of the roles.

But both ex-PMs agreed on the importance of ensuring that power is not unduly concentrated at the centre of government, with both commenting that delegation of power is crucial to enable the centre of government to focus on its core strategic objectives. As the United Kingdom is a multinational state, with devolved governments, such delegation is of paramount importance. Gordon Brown, in particular, has advocated his view delegating responsibility in his 2022 proposal to reform the House of Lords to create an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’, and historically in the Labour Government’s manifesto in 2015, and 2019.

Greater scrutiny

Finally, the Report also proposed adopting a modified ‘three lines of defense’ model for resilience, separating out the responsibilities for risk management, oversight and audit. The Commission highlights that audit bodies need to do significantly more in the realm of scrutinising the centre of government, and this is not the first time in recent years the IfG has voiced this concern. The IfG, in the context of its Covid-19 preparedness report, emphasised the importance of audits and the National Audit Office (an independent parliamentary body in the United Kingdom which is responsible for auditing central government departments, government agencies and non-departmental public bodies) in ensuring transparency, accountability, and efficiency within government. But is also concluded that both the NAO and Parliament need to strengthen their scrutiny of the Executive.

Final thoughts

It has been a couple of weeks since the Commission published its Report and, while of interest to those obsessed with the dealings of Westminster/Whitehall, it doesn’t appear to have made much of a wider splash, with little wider coverage. Perhaps deckchair shuffling at the centre of Government did not hit a chord with the wider media/country, which remains (understandably) more concerned about the ongoing cost of living crisis, the upcoming General Election and various foreign conflicts, (a view echoed in Ben Yong’s UK Constitutional Law Association blog post).

However, while aspects of the proposals probably need fine-tuning, the Commission has undoubtedly given food for thought for any incoming government. How these proposals fare following the General Election will be a matter to be seen in the coming years.

Enjoyed reading our blog? You can find more public law and Brexit related content here. To find out more about the work we undertake, get in touch with Aaron Nelson.

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