The Blog

Shuffle The Pack

Are these changes wise? Experts like the Institute for Government tend to think not and indeed there is a general consensus amongst academics and former mandarins that the only decent change in recent decades has been the creation of the Department for Work and Pensions.

There has been a lot of moving around of the furniture in Whitehall in the last few weeks.

Theresa May, who has a reputation for being perhaps a bit understated and dull, has unexpectedly done more mucking about with the boundaries of government departments than we have seen for a long time. Exactly why remains unclear.

What have we got? Well, some of it makes me feel very nostalgic. The old business department, BIS, has been stripped of its skills and higher education responsibilities but has the energy and climate change department added into it (and in a classic Whitehall compromise keeps two permanent secretaries - at least for the moment).

This new department, named the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the unpronounceable BEIS, is more or less the old Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) as I knew it as a special adviser (spad) between 1997-2001.

Meanwhile, those bits that have been jettisoned from BEIS have found their way to the old Department of Education, which therefore looks very like the Department for Education and Skills where I was a spad in 2005-6.

Closer to home for my current job, the Office of Civil Society has been shunted out of a place where it might have had some power - Cabinet Office - to the outer reaches of the Whitehall firmament at The Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Take that David Cameron and your Big Society!

Other changes are a product of the EU referendum vote, with a 'does what it says on the tin' styled Department for Exiting the European Union having been created. For less clear reasons, a Department for International Trade has been carved out, taking some of what BIS used to do and some of Foreign Office.

As is the way of these things, the Government tries to claim that there is some great rationale for all the changes.

So bringing energy and climate change back into the business department will apparently 'mean that government will be best placed to deliver the significant new investment and innovation needed to support the UK's future energy policy', ignoring the danger that industrial concerns might now overwhelm any interest in low carbon but higher priced energy.

Meanwhile, the new education department 'will bring together in one place responsibility for all elements of education, children's services and skills - creating a seamless policy and delivery function'.

True, but since secretaries of state in education live or die by how schools are doing, expect to see the skills budgets squeezed to prevent too much fall off in schools funding.

One thing May was right to do was make the changes at the beginning of her reign. It is almost impossible to change departments around when the incumbent secretary of state is already in place since it is seen as a demotion if they lose anything, and so they fight it like mad.

Are these changes wise? Experts like the Institute for Government tend to think not and indeed there is a general consensus amongst academics and former mandarins that the only decent change in recent decades has been the creation of the Department for Work and Pensions.

The institute rather ambitiously suggests that 'The PM should be required to produce a supporting business case and a clear estimate of costs before implementing changes'. As if.

Of course, there is no 'right' way to configure different responsibilities. However you do it you create boundaries and tensions - as anyone running a local authority will also be aware.

Take skills and further education and higher education away from the business department and their focus might now diverge from what employers need.

Take them away from the schools department and there is a disconnect as people go up the educational ladder.

So while a machinery of government change definitely incurs the disruption costs of moving people around, harmonising terms and conditions, having people compete for their own jobs and rebadging the department, the chances of if having real, substantial benefits are relatively slim.

Despite these arguments for having a bias to the status quo, there is a case for shuffling the pack every now and then.

It makes departments think differently. It exposes hidden tensions, helps create some new synergies, not least as budgets are now competing against different ones but can also be aligned more easily with them.

It makes a department rethink what its purpose is and what outcomes it is there to achieve. It may, if done carefully, also ease out some posts and staff members who have not been adding very much value.

It can also change the pecking order as it is seen in Whitehall. For instance May has not only given the new business department a very un-Tory and un-Treasury like title of industrial strategy, but has created a Cabinet Committee that she chairs to push all this.

Clearly she has some idea of reigning the Treasury in a bit after it ruled the roost with its austerity meme in the Osborne days.

Change in the organisation of any institution causes costs and dislocation. But the alternative to change is to keep the status quo.

Strategy reviews are the bane of many staff - who often feel they cause lots of extra work for no real benefit. But without them, and occasional changes in the structures of our organisations, we would probably be worse off.

This blog was first published in The MJ