Think tank brings in Westminster heavyweights to look at government reform

Written by Beckie Smith on 21 October 2020 in News

Policy Exchange recruits two former secretaries of state alongside senior civil servants

Credit: PA

A former Treasury permanent secretary, the ex-chair of Ofcom and two erstwhile secretaries of state are among a new group formed by the Policy Exchange think tank to examine how best to reform the civil service.

The Reform of Government Commission will “examine how the civil service can be improved and modernised”, Policy Exchange has announced.

It will be chaired by Dame Patricia Hodgson, who chaired Ofcom from 2014 to 2017 and who is also a member of the government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

Its members include former Treasury perm sec Lord Nick Macpherson, former Equality and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Phillips; and former chief of the general staff General Sir Peter Wall.

Ex-education secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan and former communities secretary and Labour Party chair Hazel Blears will also sit on the commission, along with Lord Jonathan Caine, who was special adviser to six Northern Ireland secretaries.

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Also among the group are a former European commissioner; a former New Zealand high commissioner to the UK; and a previous Leader of the House of Lords.

The commission will look at five areas: context and challenge; capacity, skills and rewards; structures of government; digital, data and new technologies; and connecting with the public.

In an overview of the commission, Hodgson wrote that it would “go back to first principles and ask: what sort of civil service do we want? What should its ethos be? How should accountability be maximised through clearer lines of responsibility? How can it better serve governments of all hues?”

The group will “draw on the expertise of a wide range of leading practitioners” and use focus groups, polling and an evidence-gathering “roadshow”, “to produce authoritative, useful research that leads to better government”, she wrote.

The commission's work will build on a whitepaper on Whitehall reform that Policy Exchange published after the general election last year, Hodgson said.

The paper argued for more power over the civil service to be held in Downing Street; for the return of extended ministerial offices; and recruitment and progression reform “to enhance expertise, accountability and institutional memory”.

The briefing counted the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who has been highly critical of the civil service and has called for major structural and hiring reforms, among its sources.

New cabinet secretary Simon Case, who took on the role last month, has said he wants to "modernise" the civil service.

In his first message to officials, Case wrote that he wanted to build on the ways officials had responded to the coronavirus pandemic wth "innovative ways of delivering frontline services to our citizens" and become a "world-leading 21st-Century government machine with people that can unlock the potential of data, invite challenge and remove the obstacles that frustrate us".

Hodgson said the commission would "pay tribute to the professionalism and achievements of the civil service under recent pressures, while examining the strains and problems that recent crises have revealed".

"The unprecedented challenges which the UK faces require a fundamental assessment of how best the machinery of government can be envisioned and equipped for the new world," she said.

She added: “Above all, bearing in mind successive failed attempts in the past, we will focus on the execution of civil service reform – the ‘how’ and the ‘who’, as much as the ‘why’ and the ‘what’. We will not shy away from asking difficult questions and recommending radical changes where necessary, which are likely to affect ministers, political advisers and private sector consultants, as well as officials.”


About the author

Beckie Smith acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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