Making PMs fit for purpose

9 Jul 14
Jill Rutter

Prime ministers need better professional central government support if they are not going to hit the ground stumbling. So how can that be done? 

There is no good preparation for being prime minister – neither leading the Opposition nor running a big government department prepares the incumbent for the big step up. Indeed the pressure on prime ministers is both not to be seen to prepare – to 'measure the curtains' - and to make commitments to set an example by cutting the size of personal support they can call on.

The result is that our last three prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron - have all hit the ground stumbling – only getting the support they wanted after initial reversals and frustration.

David Cameron has been through three iterations of the Policy Unit and abolished, then reinstated, a progress chasing function. Gordon Brown went through a couple of unsuccessful chiefs of staff, before finally reverting to Blair’s old principal private secretary in a new role as 'permanent secretary of No 10' to try to bring some order to his operation. Tony Blair, denied the support he wanted from the Cabinet Office, invented his own parallel capacities in the shape of his Delivery and Strategy Units from the start of his second term.

Potential prime ministers, and those thinking of another term, should think more closely about how they want to govern - based on a more realistic assessment of the pressures they will experience in office – and for that they need to draw on a wide range of expertise and experience. But the Institute’s new report, Centre Forward, makes clear that prime ministers should also receive a better core offer from the civil service on the six key capacities they need to govern effectively.

Those key capacities are:

• capacity to provide day-to-day policy advice and support through the Private Office and Policy Unit in Number 10 in particular, making sure that they have capacity to intelligence gather and firefight – and with some big hitters on priority areas.
• capacity in the Cabinet office for active coordination – better resourced secretariats able to connect to the Whitehall machinery to push the prime minister’s agenda but also quality assure and challenge on the PM’s behalf
• capacity for longer-term (and cross-cutting) policy development– in the UK system this is ad hoc, or left to departments.
• capacity on 'progress assurance' - any prime minister ought to be able to rely on assurance that high risk projects are being managed effectively. But experience shows they also need capacity to ensure that their own priorities are being successfully pursued.
• capacity to catalyse and incubate change – prime ministers have created special units to challenge business as usual – but the Cabinet Office needs both to have the capacity to create these units quickly – but also to be able to advise PMs on how to make them work most effectively.
• capacity to plan and co-ordinate longer-term communications and external relations to answer for government across the whole range of business.

A consistent, core offer to all prime ministers, drawing on what has worked from past innovations – and learning the lessons from what was tried and worked less well would start to counter the perception of ad hockery and 'amateurishness' of the centre which so strikes those who come into government from the business world.

Prime ministers would still be able to shape – with the people they bring in; the priorities they set for their government, and the style in which they govern. But they would be able to base that on a stronger core operation, rather than need – as Tony Blair did – to set up his own parallel operation.

In the past, there has been a sterile debate about whether this would undermine Cabinet government by creating a prime minister’s department – and divert the Cabinet Office from its traditional role of underpinning collective decision-making. That is not a good excuse for underserving the prime minister – who finds himself with less support than his cabinet colleagues. The prime ministers of Australia and Canada expect to be able to draw on the sort of capacity we set out in our report – and their jobs are no more difficult than the British prime minister’s.

Effective government needs an effective centre – and that is what should drive the debate on support to the prime minister.

Jill Rutter is programme director at the Institute for Government. Centre Forward: Effective support for the prime minister at the centre of government is published today.

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