Research Project

Changing Whitehall’s DNA: Reforming Whitehall to free cities and counties
14 January, 2008

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Changing Whitehalls DNAA new NLGN report reveals the true nature of decision-making within Government. The report shows how improved scrutiny of Public Service Agreements (PSAs) can reform Whitehall and so ensure devolution in the delivery of public services.

The New Local Government Network has analysed the evolution of PSAs and reform of the Cabinet Committee system, concluding that the Prime Minister has developed the tools for a new approach to public service management based less on departmental silos and more on cross-Whitehall delivery for which individual Ministers and senior civil servants are now accountable.

The study also looks at which Ministers are responsible for PSA targets, which detail each Department’s aims and objectives for the forthcoming three years. These agreements describe how targets will be achieved and how performance against these targets will be measured. The study reports on dispute resolution and progress chasing powers of Cabinet Committees and Cabinet Sub-Committees and analyses the allocation of this authority to different Ministers.

Cabinet Ministers have been given personal responsibility for delivering the Prime Ministers’ 30 key goals. The bulk of responsibility lies with a small number of Ministers. Topping the list is Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families with responsibility for five PSAs, with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith next with responsibility for four agreements. This contrasts with other Cabinet colleagues such as Ruth Kelly and David Miliband having responsibility for only one.

Number of PSAs for which each Cabinet Minister is operationally responsible


The report argues that the Prime Minister’s PSA reforms have the potential to “change the DNA of Whitehall” replacing a culture based on departmental fiefdoms with an outward focus on meeting public concerns. Greater public scrutiny is needed to complete the reform.

NLGN make recommendations to give the House of Commons greater authority to call government to account including the creation of “question times” for individual PSAs and the Ministers responsible for their delivery; annual Ministerial reports on progress and Select Committee scrutiny and formal status for Whitehall’s new ‘Senior Responsible Officers’, which were created by Gordon Brown on becoming Prime Minister in July 2007.

The study also assesses the reformed Cabinet Committee and Sub-committee systems, finding that some Ministers have considerable influence over the final delivery of PSA targets:

Ranking of Cabinet Ministerial responsibility for dispute resolution at Sub-committee level


In the report, author Dick Sorabji, Deputy Director of NLGN argues:

“Traditionally Britain’s great offices of state are those of Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and in recent decades the Deputy Prime Minister. The PSA regime reveals a different ranking; one that is far more closely aligned with the reported alliances within the Labour government”

“This is an approach to running Whitehall that could replace Prime Minister Blair’s use of high profile central ‘Units’ [such as the Strategy Unit and Social Exclusion Unit]. Building on his reforms to PSAs and Cabinet Committees the Prime Minister has the opportunity both to make Whitehall more effective and also to deliver the ‘joined up government’ that is central to his long term vision.”

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Publication Date: 14 January 2008
Authored by: Dick Sorabji