Strong And Stable? Theresa May's Reshuffle Was A Big Distraction For Whitehall

After the unforced error of the Prime Minister’s reshuffle, government departments now have to spend precious time and resources changing nameplates and briefing new ministers
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One of the benefits of a permanent civil service is the stability it provides at times of political upheaval. In the period running up to an election, opposition parties are able to engage formally with the civil service, a process which helps both sides assess and prepare for what may be a change of government.

As we approached the 2010 election, the Conservatives – then in opposition – had their first formal engagement with the civil service. One of the key messages they received from Whitehall was a plea for stability. Over the previous decade, we had witnessed an endless cycle of distracting ministerial and machinery of government changes.

The civil service is not one homogenous group, and government departments are independent organisations with delegated authority – they even act as independent employers. When changes to the infrastructure of government are made, hundreds if not thousands of civil servants have to be reorganized and sometimes physically moved. They then suffer weeks of disruption as everything from IT systems to email addresses, management structures and, yes, headed notepaper, are all changed.

Political leadership also matters in a government department, where most policy implementation is measured in years rather than months. Few Secretaries of State simply want to inherent a policy agenda and implement someone else’s grand plan. David Cameron listened to that view and, when he formed his new government, there were minimal changes to the infrastructure of government. With a coalition to maintain and an ambitious agenda, it also meant there was less necessity and scope to tinker for political ends.

The EU referendum result and Theresa May’s rise to Number 10 inevitably meant there would be a series of ministerial changes –the current Prime Minister can hardly be blamed for that. Similarly, the recent Cabinet resignations prompted by the sexual harassment scandal and the Secretary of State for International Development’s plan to invent a new policy for the Middle East were, to say the least, unfortunate.

The unforced general election and loss of both May’s majority and a number of her ministers cannot, however, be blamed on luck, and, of course, reshuffles are entirely self-inflicted wounds. The ability to hire and fire is one of the great powers vested in the Prime Minister and it is supposed to reinforce the authority of their role in a Cabinet Government. I’ll leave it to others to judge May on her strong and stable credentials, but few would suggest that this week’s reshuffle represented her finest hour.

More importantly, what does this all mean for the business of government? In just over a year, we will exit the European Union, the biggest administrative challenge the civil service has faced since the Second World War, with the fewest resources since that time. We also face the same major economic and social policy challenges that are blighting most of the western democracies, fueling discontent and distrust in mainstream political leadership.

“The primary focus of government should be delivering life-changing policies for the good of the citizens that elect it”

Over the coming days, senior civil servants will be sitting down with their new Secretaries of State and junior ministers to induct them in to the new department and brief them on their new responsibilities. A permanent, professional civil service does provide stability in these uncertain times – but big problems require bold solutions and that requires strong and stable political leadership.

Many departments are now on to their third or fourth Secretary of State in as many years. Add to that the disruption of changes at junior ministerial level, where much of the hard graft is done, and the result is a department wasting precious resources to simply maintain the status quo, never mind deliver change.

As the Prime Minister looked around her Cabinet table, knowing the level of disruption that had already occurred in her relatively short tenure, her instinct should have been only to make changes where absolutely necessary.

Instead, the need to be seen to be strong has overridden the need to deliver effective government. Three of the big ministries, where much of domestic social policy is delivered, are seeing changes of minister for no apparent reason other than satisfying internal political expediency. It is ironic that, once again, a decision intended to strengthen government only appears to have weakened it.

And what exactly are we to make of the Department for Communities and Local Government suddenly becoming a Ministry and adding Housing to the title? Does the minister really need to see the word Housing on a brass name plate at the front door each morning to remind him that he already has that responsibility? We’re promised further announcements that will re-enforce this new focus on housing (where have we heard that before?) but the move smacks more of “Cesar: The new name for Mr Dog”, than it does FDR’s New Deal.

The primary focus of government should be delivering life-changing policies for the good of the citizens that elect it. There is no shortage of policy challenges that need urgently to be addressed. Instead we have blue passports, Brexit stamps and unnecessary changes of political leadership that hinder rather than enhance the ability of government to work effectively. William Hague this morning advised May’s new ministers to be radical, as they only have two years at best to do the job. Wise words indeed from the former Foreign Secretary – but is that really any way to run a country?

Dave Penman is General Secretary of the FDA, the trade union for senior public servants. He tweets as @FDAGenSec


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