Breaking down the barriers: why Whitehall is so hard to reform

Think tank: Reform

Author(s): Charlotte Pickles; James Sweetland

August 1, 2023

This report from UK think tank Reform looks maps the barriers to reforming Whitehall to help develop a plan which can overcome deep-rooted flaws.

There is remarkable consensus – including among many working within the civil service – on the key flaws in the Whitehall machine. Yet, while successive administrations have attempted to modernise the civil service and improve the structures of Whitehall, the same problems continue to recur. At a time when the nation is facing era-defining and systemic changes, the nucleus of government – Whitehall – must be operationally brilliant. Addressing shortcomings is not only key to better government, but to Britain’s future prosperity. Mapping the barriers to reforming Whitehall is the crucial first step to developing a plan which can overcome those deep-rooted flaws. ‘Breaking down the barriers’ is based on interviews with 27 senior leaders – former ministers, cabinet secretaries, permanent secretaries, other senior civil servants, and government advisers – with direct experience of reform programmes. Their candid reflections, across different decades, departments and governments, form the basis for this paper. Together, the insights from this paper offer a striking insider view of why Whitehall is so difficult to change, and hint at what future reform programmes must do differently to actually succeed.