Published on 10 August 2023
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Why is Whitehall so hard to reform?

Despite positive initiatives taking place across Whitehall, we must continue asking the fundamental questions about reform, write Sam Warner, Dave Richards, Diane Coyle and Martin Smith.

In July 2023, Minister for the Cabinet Office, Jeremy Quin, restated the government’s commitment to delivering its Declaration of Government Reform – a wide-ranging agreement between Permanent Secretaries and Ministers. Public sector modernisation was reaffirmed as a key ingredient in solving the UK’s productivity puzzle. A renewed emphasis on public sector efficiency – illustrated by the Treasury’s new Government Efficiency Framework – will form ‘the foundation of a modern civil service’.  Understandable talk of more effective (and, importantly, cheaper) public services reflects the state of the public finances. But, in truth, we have been here before. What, if anything, is different this time around?

The UK civil service is undoubtedly in a tough spot. The bar for effective government is set low, the result of unprecedented political turmoil and ministerial churn. Think tanks pull few punches in their calls for reform, lending credibility to a groundswell of disobliging media commentary. A tendency to favour pragmatic and incremental reform now exists alongside a much wider critique of the dysfunctionalities of UK public administration. A hyper-centralised state is failing to get a grip of declining public services. Former mandarins are publicly calling for radical reform. The Commission for Smart Government, for example, believes the civil service has lost its edge. Reading across reports by former partitioners, think tanks and academics, a remarkable consensus emerges suggesting that inertia in a context of recurrent crises will not do.  Our own research investigating the efficacy of public spending planning and control is in this camp.

The Head of the Civil Service, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, is a self-professed supporter of radical reform, imploring his colleagues across Whitehall to avoid the ‘curse of the missed opportunity’ following the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, as the current reform agenda stutters forward with sensible but hardly transformative initiatives, observers at the Institute for Government have placed it firmly into the overflowing ‘missed opportunity’ box. This all suggests that the bureaucratic inertia of Whitehall continues.

The timely contribution to the debate by the think tank Reform – asking why Whitehall is so hard to reform – reveals why progress has been so slow. It illuminates a familiar set of pathologies, including struggles to maintain a meaningful reform agenda; a lack of political incentives to drive widespread reform; siloisation; an institutional bias favouring policy advice and ministerial handling over focusing on organisational capabilities; group think; an absence of outsider experience; and a culture that tends towards inertia as opposed to continuous improvement. Much of this is well-known. Yet, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and Reform’s account benefits from a weighty list of interviewees lending credence to the analysis. There is also a positive message: examples of successful reform initiatives are plenty, suggesting system-wide reform is not beyond the realms of possibility if politicians and officials operate in lockstep.

Reform’s conclusions reinforce our broader concerns that continuing with well-intentioned but incremental reforms will continue to fail to address the wider set of deep-seated dysfunctionalities of the UK’s power hoarding and largely closed system of government. Things may even get worse not better for people tasked with delivering some of our most complex and multifaceted public services.

For example, the Functional Model of Government – designed to centralise corporate functions and specialist expertise – was described by Jeremy Quinn as a ‘revolutionary step’ with ‘the Victorian departmental silo model being complemented by a lattice of cross-departmental experts with which most in the commercial sector will be familiar’. But while reported cost savings and efficiencies are welcome, our research questions the extent to which silos are breaking down. In the extensive interviews we have conducted, we have also heard frustrations about the ability of this model to respond to operational needs on the ground. Local particularities are rarely captured in the Whitehall-centric nature of the debate.

The Treasury’s new Government Efficiency Framework is another tentative reform that arguably fails to take on the most critical issues. As a tool to improve Whitehall’s approach to recording and monitoring efficiencies, it is a step forward and responds to past criticisms. It should also be welcomed that it emphasises ‘a more sophisticated view of what efficiency means’ by foregrounding the importance of non-cashable efficiencies and the necessity of maintaining performance levels. However, despite progress in this area in recent years, there remains a ‘back to the future’ quality to much of this. The work of Sir Peter Gershon on public sector efficiency and, importantly, the subsequent analysis of his conclusions, covers this ground in some detail.

In 2014, the Government Economic Service acknowledged that efficiency debates often focus on back office and transactional services because they are readily measurable but it remains the case that ‘the greatest public sector spend is on frontline public services’. Yet, the claims of earlier productivity plans to reduce the cost of inputs to protect frontline public services rings hollow for many of our interviewees who deliver public services at the coalface. For example, our research highlights that a failure to adequately engage with operationally focused actors is part of the reason that the Prison Unit Cost Programme (PUCP) could be held up as an exemplar by the Civil Service’s Public Sector Efficiency Group, despite the fact that measurable performance tanked dramatically. The resulting crisis in prisons is ongoing. What is different this time around if the incentive structures in Whitehall remain the same?  The reality is not much.

The real novelty here is that The Treasury has provided ‘a centralised, consistent, and enduring process for departments to track and report on their efficiency savings’. Cross-examination of reported efficiencies against priority outcomes in Outcome Delivery Plans (ODP) is certainly a positive step. However, the fact that Ministers have blocked the release of 2023-24 ODPs is the very antithesis of an open and transparent system. It surely undermines Whitehall’s credibility in providing a strategic steer to the wider public sector. Here it is worth recalling that in 2010, David Cameron declared his government would oversee a fundamental shift in transparency and openness with democratic accountability replacing bureaucratic accountability. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The big question – how we reform the UK’s increasingly incoherent accountability framework – is the elephant in the room. Incremental steps could be tiny if the UK grapples with the important technocratic details of public administration, but successive governments and Whitehall neglect the big systemic impediments to meaningful reform. The initiatives described here in isolation of wider reforms are little more than further centralisation.

In December 2018, John Manzoni, the former Chief Executive of the Civil Service, told the Public Accounts Committee: “We work in Whitehall in a delegated model, which is all fine until it doesn’t work. When it does not work, you have absolutely no levers to fix it. We have to build back from that.” Given the scale of the UK’s challenges, it is hard to accept this as a summation of the status quo that stands the test of time. In the light of Reform’s conclusions, it is the case that ‘targeted interventions at specific problems’ alone will not be enough, even in the short term.

The civil service is good at identifying problems but responding to them in isolation and without a long-term strategy risk creating new ones. We agree that a systemic approach to reform will require politicians and senior civil servants to operate in lockstep. But tinkering with systems and processes in Whitehall will not rejuvenate public sector productivity if the consequences for frontline public services are inadequately understood. The government knows there is no single key driver to improving public sector efficiency and performance. Yet, in deciding which levers to pull, the wealth of knowledge and expertise beyond Whitehall remains largely untapped. As the conversation moves on to solutions to Whitehall’s imperviousness to reform, meaningful engagement with ‘outsiders’ would sharpen understanding about the relationship between efficiency and public service outcomes. They are, after all, the people the Whitehall machine should serve.  

Image: “Whitehall SW1, City of Westminster”, by Can Pac Swire is licenced under CC BY-NC 2.0

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Dr Sam Warner

Dr Sam Warner

Dr Sam Warner, Researcher on Nuffield Foundation funded project ‘Public Expenditure Planning and Control in Complex Times: A Study of Whitehall Departments’ Relationship to the Treasury (1993-Present)’, University of Manchester.

Prof Dave Richards
Diane Coyle 2018

Professor Diane Coyle

Bennett Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

Professor Coyle co-directs the Bennett Institute with Professor Kenny. She is heading research under the progress and productivity themes. Biography Professor Dame Diane Coyle is the Bennett Professor of Public Policy at...

Professor Martin Smith
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