Smarter government

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Alex Thomas

July 13, 2021

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government assesses the Commission for Smart Government’s ‘four steps’ for reform.

The Commission for Smart Government is right to say in its report on ‘smarter government’* that this is an important moment for government renewal. Change often comes after moments of trauma. Wars and crises have inspired reform in the past, partly from a search for fresh beginnings but also because moments of extreme tension show what works and what needs to change in a country’s major institutions. The Covid-19 aftermath is clearly such a moment. The UK government’s ability to manage risks, and respond to shocks; the way decisions are made, executed and communicated; the way different levels of government interact; and the accountability of ministers and senior officials have all been found lacking in the pandemic response. The proposals – many of which echo a decade of Institute for Government work – include good ideas, like modernising the centre of government, improving the skills of civil servants and being clearer about accountability for ministerial and civil service performance. The commission also rightly recognises that these are problems for ministers too – not ones that can be blamed solely on other public servants. It is time to treat ministers, civil servants and officials across the public sector less as separate tribes and more as fellow professionals who have different roles in serving the public. However, despite the commission’s welcome emphasis on improving the ability of the prime minister to set a strategic direction and get things done, it does not deal enough with some of the really big questions of government reform. These include how to establish the separate accountability of ministers and officials and putting the civil service and government oversight mechanisms on a more secure footing. There are also some suggestions that will be counter-productive, like stripping the prime minister of his responsibilities for the civil service and physically separating ministers from their departmental teams. Nick Herbert, the chair of the commission, and his fellow commissioners have set out four steps to make government more strategic, capable, innovative and accountable. This paper assesses those four steps for reform.