30 June 2022

Count down: how to get a slimmer, more efficient Cabinet Office


Since it was established over a century ago, the role of the Cabinet Office has historically been to manage the civil service and coordinate policy. Over the years, however, it has ballooned beyond all proportion with its fingers in every government pie. With no fewer than 13 ministers, its focus and structure shifts with the Prime Minister of the day.

We’ve heard the Government’s plans to reduce the civil service headcount by nearly 20%. With a little critical thinking and ingenuity, that’s easily possible – and would take only take us back down to roughly 2018 levels. In a series of Adam Smith Institute reports, we’re examining just how we can reform the civil service to provide quality governance, while ensuring taxpayer value for money.

Our new report, ‘Count Down: Reforming the Cabinet Office’, starts with the department itself, outlining the complicated structure of the Cabinet Office and suggests key ways to make it slimmer and more efficient.

The overall working of the Cabinet Office is confusing, to say the least; the latest payroll data gives a headcount of nearly 12,500 but last annual report gave a figure closer to 9,000. Even sifting through their many annual reports and declarations doesn’t clear things up. There are nearly two dozen agencies, offices and public bodies, and a similar number of ‘high profile groups’.

Whilst many of these quangos are undoubtedly useful, some are better suited to other departments and others should be wound up or privatised. There’s countless examples of duplication, bloat and mismatched priorities within the many different corners of the Cabinet Office.

For example, within the Cabinet Office there’s The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Equality Hub and the Government Equalities Office. You would think that a single agency or office would suffice, instead of three. On a similar note, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs would surely be better off as part of the Ministry of Defence.

As for bloated staffing, for some reason the 800-odd employees of the National Lottery are part of the Cabinet Office. Surely they would fit more naturally into the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Either way, it’s not clear that the Lottery’s grant-giving role requires such high staff numbers (which average out as around 25 grants per staff member per year).

A useful tool is comparing the staff numbers the Cabinet Office says work on each of its stated priorities to how many staff it actually employs. The result is that 20% of Cabinet Office staff do not seem to have a clear role; if they’re not working on key priorities, what are they working on?

Large recent increases in Cabinet Office spending are unexplained too. If you trawl through their 200-page annual report you find spending on ‘goods and services’ jumped by 150% (around £500m) in one year. There might be a reasonable explanation, but it’s not given. The department should also be making its reporting much more accessible, so it doesn’t take hours of reading to work out what they are up to.

Through redistribution, restructuring, or redundancy, we think you can get the headcount down and save taxpayers a lot of money, as well as improve government efficiency. We give one scenario in our report which would reduce the Cabinet Office headcount to 1,286 (a cut of about 90%).

There’s no way to know if that’s the right number, but one way of working it out would be conducting a ‘reverse Parkinson’ exercise. Parkinson’s Law is the idea that work expands to fill the time available. Reversing it means finding what will not be done in the event of a drastic headcount reduction (theoretically, before any redundancies take place). You then ease the numbers back up until all essential work is covered.

It’s only right that the Civil Service faces scrutiny. After all, their core responsibility is to ensure the steady and skilled implementation of the policies and laws of the land. They are ultimately responsible to a government elected and paid for by the people of the UK. We should all want them to be as qualified, specialised, and efficient as possible.

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Daniel Pryor is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.