Inside the machine, by Tony Travers

7 Feb 08
The centre of government has been given a make-over, with new policy advisers and even a permanent secretary at Number 10. But they're no nearer to finding Brown's big idea, says Tony Travers

08 February 2008

The centre of government has been given a make-over, with new policy advisers and even a permanent secretary at Number 10. But they're no nearer to finding Brown's big idea, says Tony Travers

Gordon Brown is attempting to get a grip on his government. After a frightful autumn and winter, there is evidence that the prime minister is bringing in new talent to improve the direction and control of the core of the Whitehall machine. This machinery consists of several different bits of policy and strategy-making units, plus elements of the civil service, coupled with links to think-tanks, academics, MPs and others.

For a government that has been accused of lacking a strategy or policy-making capacity, the renovation of this core of advisers and officials is significant. It is also important to public servants and the wider electorate. Loyal Labour MPs are open in admitting that in the early months of the Brown government the Number 10 machine operated in an often chaotic and unfocused way. Last week, think-tank Progress issued a call-to-arms for the Labour party to rethink its approach to the Conservatives and politics more generally. It is abundantly clear that Brown and his team arrived without the blueprint for government that many commentators had expected.

During the endless months in the run-up to Brown becoming prime minister, hundreds of articles were written about what might happen when he assumed office. There was a widespread assumption that the ten-year-old Labour government would be able to refresh itself without holding a general election.

Many parts of the public sector were expected to see an array of policy initiatives 'when Gordon becomes PM'. We were told to brace ourselves for major constitutional reforms: the House of Lords, the prime minister's use of the royal prerogative and local government might all, we were assured, be subject to change. It was expected that the new PM would significantly reduce the number of targets and related pressures on public institutions. Regulation would be reduced, it was predicted. Overall, there would be a move away from Blairite preoccupations with 'choice', 'markets' and private provision.

Commentators imagined that the Brown camp would hit the ground running. There would be a plan for the first 100 days of government. Public services, in particular, could expect the early signs of relief from the government's preoccupation with initiatives and reform. The full panoply of Brown's intellect would have been applied to a set of worked-through – and different – policies. In short, there would be a discernible change of political direction.

Except, of course, it never happened – or, at least, not in the way intended. After seven months at the helm, Brown looks like 'Blair Lite' – a half-hearted attempt to signal difference, wedded to a half-hearted effort at continuity. What has definitely not happened is the public service reform that was expected. It now looks as if the long period in which the former chancellor was stuck in a holding pattern around 10 Downing Street was not occupied by planning, just plotting.

For example, many of the new PM's trusted colleagues from the Blair era – for example, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander – no longer have time to provide regular help to their boss. Each now has a Whitehall department to run. Critics might also point out that the 'positive' business of government is very different from the more negative task of being Tony Blair's disloyal opposition.

Recent appointments have started a process intended to rebuild the core of the Brown government and to allow new policies to emerge. Jeremy Heywood has been brought in from the Cabinet Office (having before that worked in the City and within Tony Blair's Downing Street) as permanent secretary at Number 10 – a wholly new post implying that the PM's office is now, in effect, a department of state. Heywood's appointment follows the arrival of Stephen Carter, ex-public relations guru, to be 'chief of strategy and principal adviser', in effect, chief of staff. These two individuals are now expected, jointly, to create a consistent and panic-free operating system for Brown's government. They might even share an office.

New appointments of this kind, of course, only create the engine room of a medium-sized 'prime minister's department'. Dan Corry continues as head of the Number 10 Policy Unit. Nick Pearce, former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, is 'head of strategic policy' at the Policy Unit. Separately, the Strategy Unit, with Stephen Aldridge as director, looks at longer-term issues of concern to the core of government.

There are several other important posts. Spencer Livermore is director of political strategy and Sue Nye director of government relations. The former provides the prime minister with political advice about policy and the latter is responsible for linking the core of government with the rest of the political system.

All of this policy machinery fits alongside the 'traditional' Cabinet Office secretariat and the Cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell. The Cabinet Office secretariat's aim is to ensure that the business of government is conducted effectively and that collective consideration takes place before decisions are made. The Cabinet Office supports the PM in leading the government and co-ordinates operations across the whole of government, notably by providing the administration of Cabinet committees and sub-committees.

The Cabinet Office exists – according to its 2007 'simplification' plan – to 'support the prime minister and the Cabinet in domestic, European, overseas and defence policy-making' and to 'drive delivery of the prime minister's cross-cutting priorities to: improve outcomes for the most excluded people in society; and enable a thriving third sector'.

To this end, in the words of the Cabinet Office website: 'The secretariat work closely with the Number 10 private office and policy directorate, the Strategy Unit and the Delivery Unit to prepare briefings for the prime minister and to support his meetings.'

As well they might. It is clear the centre of government remains a complex place, with overlapping baronies and jobs that sound curiously similar. Professor George Jones has noted that Brown has come closer than Blair and any other previous PM in establishing a full 'prime minister's department'.

But the arrangements look extremely complicated. It requires significant detective work to piece together the details of the full system. Moreover, beyond the policy-making and control systems in the core of the PM's empire, there are other bodies charged with delivering results.

Thus, for example, the Delivery Unit, now located in the Treasury, reports to both the chancellor and the prime minister about the effectiveness of strengthening public service delivery. Elsewhere in the Treasury and beyond, units pursue value for money and other aspects of service performance.

Presumably Stephen Carter will be attempting to set the government off in a new and interesting direction. Coming from a PR background, he should be able to improve presentation. However, as any advertising executive knows, you cannot sell a defective product with even the most brilliant presentation. There has to be substance. At the moment, there is no consistent or new message for the Brown government to put across.

Those who might be expected to furnish ministers with new ideas include the Policy Unit and the Strategy Unit. But many of the more fertile policy ideas to break cover since Brown took over came from outside all this machinery.

Thus, Lord (Ara) Darzi continues to work towards his final report on the health service. Lord (Andrew) Adonis is still at the centre of schools policy, driving forward the government's commitment to specialist schools and academies. These ministers appear, so far, to be the only ones to come up with ideas that create some kind of discernible novelty in policy-making.

There have been a few other exceptions. A white paper was published on the governance of Britain, but with the clear message that serious constitutional change would take several years. Ideas that were put forward in the 'governance' paper, such as regional select committees (possibly to include council leaders), have not subsequently advanced very far, if at all. A bland central-local government Concordat has been signed, but it cannot be seen as a major change of direction by Whitehall.

A Children's Plan has been published, bringing together policy for the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. While the plan restates the government's commitment to the young it also accepts, in terms of much of its contents, that some serious problems – such as the quality of children's lives – remain to be solved after a decade of Labour in power. New policies for more playgrounds and possible reforms to the examination system were included in the plan, but they hardly added up to an educational earthquake. There were few new ideas in a document with more than 150 pages.

In the NHS, Darzi's interim proposals suggested a reconfiguration of health facilities, including a move towards local health centres, with fewer and bigger general hospitals. In his New Year message, the prime minister announced an increase in health screening for a number of potential illnesses. But, as in children's services, the proposals do not represent clear evidence of a distinct, thought-through, Brown approach. Changes are tactical, not strategic. There has not been any move to make the NHS independent of Richmond House, as some of the more dramatic pre-Brown predictions suggested.

Within transport, Ruth Kelly produced the long-awaited High-level output statement, outlining the government's commitment to expanding the railways, albeit at fare-payers' expense. A Local Transport Bill is in the Lords, but it had been initiated in draft form during the last parliamentary session. There are no new policies for coping with the continuing growth of traffic or the environmental consequences of travel more generally.

Even Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears' proposals for community action at the neighbourhood level have their origins in a consultative paper published by Nick Raynsford way back in January 2005. This suggests that even where 'new' initiatives have been launched since June last year, they have their origins in the Blair years. Banquo, eat your heart out.

Looking across Whitehall, there is little suggestion of a shift away from the public service policies of Brown's largely derided predecessor. The same could be said about all aspects of the government's approach. Perhaps expectations were set – by the commentariat – too high.

Simply reducing the number of initiatives and new laws would, in some eyes, have been an improvement. Blair was undoubtedly over-enthusiastic about new laws and sudden announcements. Quantity did not produce quality. Having said this, at least there was a sense of direction and a PM who could take decisions.

Having failed to set a perceptibly new path for his government, Brown has recently found himself having to cope with a series of disasters. Misplaced official data, donor scandals, Northern Rock, perceptions about knife crime, a bust-up with the police over pay and now a sharp slowdown in the global economy have provided the core of government with a nightmare few weeks. This raises the question of who is charged with directing and sharpening any creative thinking now attempted by Number 10.

Unless there is some kind of strategic understanding of what the government wants to do with its power, its sundry advisers and the Number 10 Policy Unit are unlikely to provide many convincing new ideas. Indeed, the very complexity of the machinery could inhibit the evolution of a consistent picture of what the government wants to achieve, perpetuating confusion and crossed wires.

Brown has been widely accused of being indecisive. He – or someone within his new 'prime minister's department' – now needs to decide what the government wants to achieve and set out policy steps to deliver its strategic objectives. Otherwise, a palpable sense of disappointment will grow. The failure would be all the more acute given recent reforms to the machinery of government.

Whatever outcomes commentators might have expected of a Brown government, doing very little was not among them. With an election due in the next two years or so, time is rapidly running out for Brown and his Downing Street machine.

Tony Travers is the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics


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