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The Cabinet Office is the seat of this Government’s radicalism – but it’s stuck in several ruts

By Peter Hoskin
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Here’s a question for this sullen Monday morning: which minister presides over the most radical department in Whitehall? I put the same question to some political sorts the other day, and wonder whether your answers will be the same. As they saw it, there were three main contenders: Michael Gove, with his department helping establish so many free schools; IDS, for working towards the Universal Credit; and George Osborne, for overseeing all those cuts. As for the answer I would have considered giving myself, it didn’t come up at all. No-one said Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office.

Perhaps this is because the Cabinet Office is such a peculiar, unknowable creature. It sits there at 70 Whitehall, its corridors of power winding towards Downing Street, and fulfils a role quite distinct from that of any other department. It’s meant to give shape and direction to the Government of the day, which has traditionally meant supporting Cabinet committees in doing their work. But the looseness of that role has seen it accumulate responsibility after responsibility. From helping out the Whips’ Office to changing royal succession laws, from organising honours to defending Britain’s computer networks from malicious interference, all this falls under the Cabinet Office’s purview. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of Government: multi-purpose, but what’s the connection between a compass and a toothpick?

Yet there could be another reason why Mr Maude’s name didn’t come up. For all of his department’s achievements – and they have been significant – there’s a persistent sense that more might have been achieved, if only, if only. “We definitely want to do more than we’ve been able to,” says one Coalitioneer. “It can be frustrating sometimes.” And his words were echoed by other sources, from both the Coalition and the civil service. Indeed, one of them spoke of how the Cabinet Office’s radicalism often falls victim to ruts in the road. Here, in summary form, are five such areas of radicalism, and the ruts that threaten to un-wheel them:

1) Digital government

Fist“IT project.” For the last government, that simple phrase tended to mean multi-£billion mega-computers that only Gordon Brown had the log-in details for. For this, it conjures up visions of bedroom programmers, agitating against the system and making their work available to all. This is certainly the ideal behind the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service, a relatively small unit tasked with creating websites and apps and all that stuff. Their site, which collates data and online services that were previously embedded in some of the most inaccessible corners of the Web, recently won a design award. Its staff stand out in one of the grander old buildings along Whitehall; wired to their Macbooks, and hailing from communication agencies and newspapers’ digital divisions.

RutCulture change never comes easy, and so it is in the case of digital government. As I’ve written before, Whitehall is stuck in some of its old ways, with civil servants still committing to cumbersome projects delivered by hefty companies, with even heftier price tags attached. And some of the past attitudes undermine the current good work, too. The site doesn’t yet contain all of the information we might want, and fails to present all of it an iFriendly format. Some of this can probably be put down to its work-in-progress status, but some of it is due to Whitehall’s long-standing inability to monitor and collect data. These departments have very, very big filing cabinets, and a lot of paper falls behind them.

2) Cost savings

FistAnd the point of all that digital government? Openness is part of it, but there’s also the related cause of value-for-money. For instance, by publishing the Government’s shopping receipts online, waste can be more easily spotted. And by enabling people to access public services with a keyboard and mouse, several layers of expensive bureaucracy can be done away with. Indeed, one Cabinet Office report reckons that the “greater digitisation of transactions” could save taxpayers almost £2 billion a year. But that’s not the sum total of the Cabinet Office’s drive to cut costs. In 2010, the Efficiency and Reform Group was established to help other departments find spending cuts. By the National Audit Office’s account, this group is “clearly helping departments achieve substantial reductions in annual spending” – to the tune of £5.5 billion in the last financial year.

RutThere are very few caveats to attach to the Cabinet Office’s efficiency drive; for a low cost itself, it is achieving significant savings elsewhere. But there is a fear that it will struggle to keep up its successes in the face of firmer opposition to cuts from other departments. As one civil servant puts it, “The Spending Review process is fraught and difficult. Cuts have become an even harder ask.”

(Incidentally, the Cabinet Office might want to check the Wikipedia page for its Efficiency and Reform Group. According to one edit, its chief, Stephen Kelly, “brought to the Cabinet Office not only his private sector experience gained in a variety of world class FTSE 100 companies, but also the cutting edge hairstyle of his 1980s hero, Vanilla Ice.” It also tells of his “motivational emails entitled ‘Monday Matters’ and ‘Friday Reflections’”. I don’t think it’s meant to be flattering.)

3) Civil service reform

FistSpeak to most Blarities, and there’s one group of people that has them spitting and swearing almost as much as the Brownites do – and that’s the Civil Service. As they see it, Britain’s “Rolls Royce” bureaucracy is actually more like an old, spluttering tractor; unwieldy and not given to speed or efficiency. And they sometimes even admit that they’re jealous of the Coalition’s to make the Civil Service more responsive and accountable. There is, after all, much to admire in the Cabinet Office’s Civil Service Reform Plan. It might sound obvious that permanent secretaries should have their responsibilities published and benchmarked, or that they should have had “at least two years’ experience in a commercial or operational role” – but these are only just becoming formal expectations. And, what’s more, Mr Maude’s department is doing a lot to lead by example. The part-privatisation of the Cabinet Office’s “Nudge unit” is a demonstration of how Whitehall could operate in future.

RutEver tried reforming the Civil Service hand-in-hand with the civil servants themselves? It can prove rather difficult, as Francis Maude has surely discovered. His reform plan was only published last year – about two years later than it should have been – and there’s still an almighty tussle over many of its provisions, as relations between ministers and mandarins have soured. It’s clear from his statements, as well as his official visits, that Mr Maude would like to go further – but we’re still a long way from the sorts of bureaucracies seen in countries such as Singapore and New Zealand, let alone from Hiltonian aspirations for a Civil Service that is only a tenth of its current size. The fact that Bernard Jenkin is now calling for a parliamentary commission on civil service reform is testament to the difficulties that the Cabinet Office is struggling to overcome.

4) Cyber-security

Fist£27 billion. That’s the figure that rushes to the lips of government staff when the topic of cyber-security arises. It is, apparently, the amount that cyber-crime costs the British economy each year – and it helps explain why the Coalition has funnelled £650 million into a new cyber security programme. At the forefront of this effort is the Cabinet Office, helping coordinate Whitehall’s own defences against attack and also spreading the word more generally, and particularly to businesses which are at risk. Francis Maude has been particularly keen to establish new research institutes for cyber-security, with one already set up within Oxford University.

RutAs with the Cabinet Office’s search for cost savings, there are few clear caveats to apply to this one. All evidence suggests that the Government is making progress. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all easy walking. “The difficult part,” says one official, “is persuading businesses – including small businesses – that this is isn’t some phantom problem. They do need to defend against it.”

5) Coalition

FistIt’s easy to forget, with the rising levels of personal and political animosity between the Tories and Lib Dems, that the Coalition is itself quite a radical statement. British politics is adversarial and doesn’t suit high-principled cooperation, to the extent that not one of the four hung parliaments in the last century lasted longer than two years. And the reason that unhappy trend has been bucked? The Cabinet Office cannot claim all the credit, but it can claim a good portion of it. From the original agreement to last year’s mid-term review, much of the glue that holds the Coalition together has been manufactured in 70 Whitehall, by ministers including Oliver Letwin and David Laws. And, by most accounts, this has been a particularly friendly process. “We are the Coalition,” laughs one Cabinet Office employee. “Or at least the most coalitious department there is.”

RutThe Cabinet Office may be coalitious, but its efforts are hampered by the state of the Coalition around it. The mid-term review was a case in point. Its new provisions didn’t fire the imagination as much as those in the original Coalition Agreement, and its publication was undermined by intra-party bickering in the days that followed. It’s hard to cultivate the spirit of the Rose Garden when this Government is in its autumn, with winter approaching.

Getting out of those ruts

What will help the Cabinet Office to be as radical as it wants to be? There is no single solution to such a multi-headed problem, but one recommendation did keep popping up in my conversations. And that was for the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to work more closely with each other. Together, they are meant to form the government of government; with one half providing the strategy and the other the money. But observers suggest that, as during the Brown era, power is still concentrated too heavily in the Treasury, with little coordination between the two departments. If the Cabinet Office’s radicalism really is to thrive, the message came, it cannot be marginalised – only then might people start answering "Francis Maude" to that question for this sullen Monday morning.


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