9 May 2023

Shrinking Whitehall: how a leaner civil service could lower costs and deliver better outcomes

By Jim McConalogue

Recent tabloid front pages are again awash with news that the British civil service system of delivery has become ungovernable. The failures of the British state in the past decade – not least in navigating Brexit and then the pandemic – should have already caused us to look afresh at modernising government. Whitehall now has 43 departments when it seems far fewer could get far more done. Alas, too many cooks have spoiled the Whitehall broth.

It is in that spirit that Tim Ambler’s thoughtful new book, Shrinking Whitehall – courtesy of the Adam Smith Institute – has some reform-minded proposals and common-sense views on how to simplify government structure, peppered with some helpful recommendations for how we might reform Whitehall to improve performance.

While saving money alone should never be the ultimate point of a modernising exercise, the machinery of government would run much better with a more streamlined and cost-effective approach. Although any savings in money by employing fewer staff would clearly amount to a taxpayer benefit, the restructuring required should also align civil servants more clearly with what they are supposed to achieve.

Ambler’s argument isn’t even necessarily about shrinking Whitehall at all but changing the way it works – in other words, focusing on what government should look like, even if you might disagree with some of Ambler’s treatment of each government department. Many quangos, and even some museums, have unnecessarily become a part of the government machine. In a period where politicians are keen to talk of improving productivity and private sector modernising, government should surely start with itself, where efficiency can be far worse, and thereby lead by example.

As recent Civitas research also makes clear, the government needs to ‘…take back control of itself, with democratically elected politicians in power as much as possible, if only on a point of principle’.

In that report, what we seemingly lack is the ambition of managerial politicians to ‘actually want both power over these things as well as responsibility’. In other words, ‘if you really want to achieve things in politics … then you will need power over the institutions above and beyond the vested interests that coalesce within them’. As the research sets out, some £223.9bn was spent by so-called arm’s length bodies (ALBs) in 2020, which amounts to 21% of government spending and means employing nearly 320,000 people.

Ambler has his own answers for specific reforms over quangos. In his view, all non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) should be abolished, since each department should consist only of a small core defining law and policies, alongside executive agencies with defined performance assessment. The substantive executive NDPBs carrying out government policies should become executive agencies, while substantive public service NDPBs could become public corporations answering to the relevant Commons Select Committees.

That would affect bodies such as the Planning Inspectorate, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Wilton Park and the Great Britain China Council. Executive agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) should be merged, reducing staff numbers by just under half by halving the sets of records and and online updates can be left to garages and drivers.

Comparable to our long and wobbly 47-year journey through ever-greater European integration, the evolution of public body power raises doubts about whether we can work within our regular constitutional paradigm, including the supreme role of Parliament. The Brexit process itself constituted a recent episode in British history in which we intensely debated where democratic decision-making should reside within our political system. Surely, the verdict settled in favour of not being run by ‘outside’ bodies over which the public or Parliament have little control.

The governmental response to the pandemic then introduced to the electorate some of the UK’s most restrictive peacetime law and policy in history, combined with significant increases in public spending. Yet public and parliamentary accountability for those decisions has waned so that little control had genuinely been exerted over the technocratic bodies of the executive. The PM himself even later confessed his challenges (as the then Chancellor) to technocratic decision-making in the pandemic and its inability to consider alternative courses of action.

The most significant disagreements in the last decade of British politics derive not from a fight over a redistribution of resources but in how we are governed – if not, on Brexit or on pandemic decision-making, then in relation to the Strasbourg court judgements hampering a raft of Home Office and judicial policies.

Ministers need only to look back to their efficiency-minded predecessors for the distinct type of semi-autonomous public bodies which now dominate the structure of central government. It was a model recommended under Margaret Thatcher by Sir Robin Ibbs in a 1988 review of the civil service.

The objective of the review was to improve the management and delivery of government services while reducing the perceived monolithic elements of the civil service, with its desire for centrally set rules and a risk-averse culture. Even if you don’t sign up to all of Tim Ambler’s recommendations, it is surely time to look again and review how the civil service delivers.

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Jim McConalogue is the CEO of Civitas.

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