Gordon’s New Machinery of Government?
23 February, 2007

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Public Servant

The imminent transition from Blair to Brown has sparked increasing speculation about the downstream consequences for the machinery of Government, some speculation more frenzied than others. If Gordon Brown acted so swiftly with Bank of England independence the day he assumed office at the Treasury, wouldn’t this suggest even bolder possibilities when he becomes Prime Minister? Without getting too carried away about the pragmatic possibilities of reform in the fabled “first hundred days” – especially if this occurs over the 2007 summer recess period – it is possible to read the tea leaves and make some guarded predictions about how a Brown administration might be structured.

The Chancellor has begun to make clear the fundamental principles on which a modern democratic constitution should be founded. In his Fabian Society speech a year ago, Gordon Brown argued that a new settlement built on a sense of Britishness, partnership, citizen empowerment and devolution should inform future reforms. The performance management tools of centrally-driven targets and departmental public service agreements has, despite criticisms, had a marked affect on raising levels of service delivery and quality across many areas of public policy. However, a point has been reached, especially in recent years, where the urgings of an imploring Whitehall have a limited writ. Delegation theory needs to kick into effect, with greater trust for frontline staff and devolution to regional, sub-regional, and above all, local decision makers. Sending a signal that the Government is renewed and functioning differently would be done best by a shifting of responsibilities away from the centre and towards those who can tailor decisions to better fit local circumstances.

Devolution is a story as much about the changes needed to Whitehall working as it is about how localism would work in practice. Perhaps predicting a reshuffle founded on the fundamental reassessment we are told will come from this summer’s Comprehensive Spending Review, John Reid has suggested that the Home Office be divided between Justice and Security tasks into two new departments, the ripples of which would in turn reorganise the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Law Officers’ Department and elements of the Cabinet Office. Gordon Brown would be well placed to steer this through the prism of the Spending Review in order to find the most efficient and seamless transition.

A sensible rationalisation of the wider constitutional departments across Whitehall would also be worthy of Brown’s consideration, perhaps drawing together the non-justice elements of the DCA, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Wales Office, Scotland Office, oversight of Government Regional Offices and of the RDAs from the DTI. A new united Department for Communities and the Constitution would ensure that sound principles of good governance and devolution are pursued more coherently throughout the decisions of national Government.

Observer journalist Will Hutton recently suggested that the Treasury might itself be the subject of reorganisation, divided off the traditional revenues and expenditure elements from a broader economic policy lead, which in turn could merge with the DTI to create a new Department for Economic Affairs. Whether such a change is likely is, of course, mere speculation. No one knows more about how the Treasury could and should operate than Brown himself and his closest colleague Ed Balls.

Departmental restructuring will not, however, be the primary driver for a new Prime Minister who eschews administrative tinkering and relentlessly focuses on the broader principles of the public realm. Brown is more likely to conduct Government through the prism of economic policy, helping those most in need by removing barriers to their social or employed advancement, focusing on how growth and prosperity can be facilitated for a wider number through more sophisticated interventions in the market by the public realm. He believes that reforms must be driven by a wider purpose, aiming at real outcomes affecting real lives, rather than designing grand institutions merely for the purpose of architectural consistency. Every Government department – and every local authority – will be asked to contribute to these wider objectives of economic empowerment and social inclusion. It will be this policy ethos that changes the daily work of civil servants and the public sector far more than any tinkering with departmental reorganisation.