What we need beyond ‘Rishi’s Refresh’

22 Nov 23

Is anything different after the reshuffle, asks CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman, who offers some ideas as well

CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman

With the government a long way behind in the polls, it’s early days to assess the prime minister’s cabinet reshuffle, but so far it’s reasonable to assume that James Cleverly will be a more considered Home Secretary than Stella Braverman. But will this mean policy change or just change in tone?

No party wishes to give up parts of its electoral coalition, and so making little policy change – but with a softer tone – might be a means to retain some Red Wall voters while stopping the haemorrhage in some Blue Wall seats of more liberal One Nation voters. We’ll see…

The present government has a lot on its plate and if we assume the polls are right, a new government next year will have a tough gig inheritance: a sluggish economy, no sign of the UK’s capital markets regaining their pre-Brexit mojo, workforce gaps and regional and social inequalities that are not budging.

I would relish a policy debate about how the UK finds its way in the next 20 years to improve its productivity to underpin a rise in living standards. I fear we are instead heading for a pretty dispiriting year of wedge issue and a culture war election.

That said, whether or not we remain in the European Convention of Human Rights is not just a culture war debate. It’s citizens’ rights and high politics too.  

What can the government do in the meantime of an election? I think the answer is to take some practical steps that can nudge things in the right direction. These quick wins might not address longer term issues such as delivering transition to sustainability and tackling climate change, but they would stabilise services as a platform for future reform.   

For example, Victoria Atkins in her new DHSC role should: 


  1. Bring an end to industrial action – it’s costing too much money and is impeding performance improvement. 

  2. Accelerate workforce reform – we need more people entering and staying in the health and care workforce. It’s a bigger problem than resources. More flexible immigration rules play an important role here too. 

  3. Greater capital access/freedom for Trusts and ICBs by relaxing HMT’s Capital DEL rules – we all know that capital decision-making is stodgy and bizarre, and organisations will fall over because of it. 

  4. Multi-year funding certainty – NHS finances are managed in the moment with not enough focus on medium term financial planning. 


And similarly, Simon Hoare in his new role at DLUHC could make quick progress by challenging some shibboleths that could end the stalemate we’re in and get some hooks in the Autumn Statement for quick change to be developed: 


  1. More local rate retention now - councils collect NNDR and HMT/DLUHC should end their funding of pots and discretionary grants by more formal and transparent redistribution. The national taxpayer should fund government initiatives such as Levelling Up. Rates predate income tax and have funded local services for centuries. It’s fundamentally councils’ local money to decide how to spend.

  2. Make refined and fairer distribution pending reform – we cannot wait a couple of years for a Fair Funding Review. Some good councils will fall foul of a system where they don’t get fair resources to match the need. The government should invite CIPFA to make some urgent non- political proposals to save the sector falling over. 

  3. Less ring-fencing and pots and more mainstream recurrent resources. The sector should argue against pots too. Why on earth do we have a Parking Revenue Account? The resources should go on statutory services. We must end the lack of corporacy where some services want patronage on their own pots. 

  4. Hasten implementation of the Redmond Review so that audit improves quickly to align with the development of OFLOG – the sector performs better when it has high quality data and local challenge. The high-profile failures caused by mismanagement in some councils are bad for the whole sector.  

What do public sector managers think regardless of “politics”? 

Of course, public sector leaders and managers often bring keen insights into what to do for the medium-term too and not just the immediate future.  

For leaders in the public sector, we see exhausted staff and budgets struggling to cope with current workloads and backlogs accumulated during the Covid pandemic. The period of disinvestment or “austerity” that started a decade ago has resulted in many public services now being less productive, and so restored or additional resources are not optimally used.

That said, while those at the top of the civil service, health service or police face ire from populist politicians or media, many public services and staff simply carry on and do as good a job as they can. Benefits and pensions are paid, passports are checked, care is provided, and our bins are collected. Public sector workers deserve medals!  

So, from hundreds of conversations every year, here’s what a lot of public sector leaders think. Let me give a health warning that this will probably annoy in equal measure all sides of the political spectrum. 

  • Compared to other developed countries our welfare and retirement benefits are meagre. We should all pay more tax to raise the level of benefits, but means-test what’s provided. Too many citizens are poorer than should be normalised. 

  • Young people are getting a really raw deal. It’s a shame they don’t vote like us older voters. 

  • We need to build more homes. The history of pre- and post-war volume decent housing was provided by local authority house building. Lack of affordable residential supply distorts the market to buy or rent homes. We’ve become a nation of Buy-to-Let landlords in replacement of council tenants. RTB should be pared back or suspended to create a rate of return on public borrowing to build homes. Owning multiple homes for rent should be taxed more. 

  • We need to insure for the care we need in old age. 

  • That we fund healthcare to be free at the point of use from taxation, sadly crowds out our investment in preventive services. We are an acute-state and not a preventative-state. We need less talk and more concrete actions, with a once in a generation investment in prevention. It’s a shame HMT does not believe in prevention. 

  • We can’t stop the small boats crossing the channel without being closer to European partners so that they allow us to jointly patrol their coastline in the way they allowed us in a different age to first process passports on their soil through juxtaposed controls.   

  • Local politics is as sovereign as national politics, and more taxes should be raised locally to grow services. The question is not what’s best to devolve, but what (few) things should Westminster reserve on the assumption that all else is devolved. At its heart Westminster and Whitehall clearly do not believe in devolution. Indeed, they worry there is not enough central control! And yes, for example, I’d let localism experiment with new forms of schools (years 14-19) focussed on vocational skills linked to national and regional industrial strategies. The government should not in effect run local schools or colleges; and academies being at arms-length to councils has not made any difference.  

  • Public service is not about who employs you; and the private sector can and should provide public services too if commissioned well to do so. Public sector managers should care more about developing the third sector than at present. 

  • The quality of national political leadership, using evidence to test and refine ideas, is not always what it was. Of course, one still meets some very impressive ministers and politicians. But gone are the days of Michael Heseltine or Alan Johnson having once led companies or trades unions and so did not believe their own rhetoric alone. Now, on the whole, too many of our political leaders have too often been political researchers or ‘chatterrati’ alone. Too many care more about packaging and the message than its outcome. That Andy Burnham and Andy Street chose to lead their areas instead of being in Westminster is a good thing, so let’s have more of this please.  

So, what’s my point? 

My point is that policy is overly driven by political mandate alone, and then tested against the experience of people running or using services. In an ideal world, public services and service users would generate ideas to improve delivery and test this with politicians. We elect people to be in the seat and make decisions they might not like. We mustn’t give them a blank cheque to do what they like.

We’ve allowed public sector management to be demoralised or demonised into a false narrative that it is only caring about itself, its “fat-cat” salaries and its pensions and is woke in caring about people that fall through the net.

It’s just not true.

Public sector managers and professionals care a great deal about the public they serve. There would be something wrong if they didn’t care or become demoralised by consistent policy failures 

If they care to listen, I hope the short-term suggestions for DLUHC and DHSC above are helpful to them to make some quicker progress.  

But for the medium term, public sector leaders through bodies such as CIPFA, SOLACE, HFMA and ADASS should not shy away from demanding that some of the structural problems of the state – its evident inability for 40 years to build enough homes or develop vocational skills needed by employers – need less politically-led solutions and more wise counsel from people running services on their behalf. We need to experiment and do some old or new things not tried for some time.

Too many solutions are ruled out as politically unachievable in the face of what people running services know is needed. Let’s normalise having an effective, well managed state instead. 

  • Rob Whiteman
    Chief executive of CIPFA since 2013, after leading the UK Border Agency and the Improvement & Development Agency. Previously, he was CEO at Barking and Dagenham council.

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