As the Covid inquiry rumbles on, one inevitable conclusion has already become clear: the government was completely out of its depth. The ineptitude of ministers contributed to the chaos; the fighting among different factions provided a dangerous distraction and an all-pervading culture of misogyny trampled over what might have been a positive female contribution to dealing with a national crisis.
But even if these massive negatives could have been erased, the government machine was not structured to cope with a pandemic. The fact is, it is not structured to cope with any number of the tough issues which explode into the prime minister’s lap. Whether it be dealing with floods, the evacuation of Afghanistan or food shortages, the UK has been found wanting.
It may be true that “They govern best who govern least”, but, whatever the origins of the quotation (often, apparently mistakenly, attributed to Henry David Thoreau in 1849) the veracity of the sentiment is unlikely to be tested anytime soon. The public wants, and expects, government to sort out its problems but government is not equipped to do so.
WhatsApp messages may be couched in coarse language and may even auto-delete after a few days but these are only the modern equivalent of the conversations that Sir Humphrey and his colleagues used to have behind closed doors. They are creating headlines for the Covid inquiry but the risk is that they distract from the key question: “How can government be better equipped to deal with crises?” In fact, the question that needs answering is even broader: “How can government be structured to be as effective as possible?”
There are currently 24 different ministerial departments, 20 non-ministerial departments and 422 agencies and other public bodies. Comparisons with previous totals are meaningless since governments constantly change the names and briefs. The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department only assumed its current identity in September 2021. Even more recent is the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, created by Rishi Sunak in February this year but probably due for another rebranding now the prime minister has decided that there are more Tory votes to be had from being the friend of the motorist than determinedly embracing the green agenda.
Any business which continually changed department names and personnel would be doomed but it is not just the constant restructuring which hampers government. Problems don’t respect departmental boundaries, wherever they are set. The siloed approach of government may have worked once but it is no longer fit for purpose. In today’s world, everything is interlinked.
That the country has an epidemic of obesity is not just a matter for the Department of Health; it should have implications for at least agriculture, trade, sport and education. The shortage of housing has implications not just for the Department for the Environment, but also employment, transport and business. And, no matter what the problem, there is always an angle that concerns the Treasury.
Within the half-million people employed in the civil service, there is huge expertise and talent but the difficulty is in getting that applied to the appropriate issues. Bringing cross-departmental skills to bear on problems at an early stage should be a priority.
It would undoubtedly be easier if ministers were in post for longer. At the moment, they change so rapidly that some barely have the chance to learn the name of their permanent secretary before they are moved elsewhere. Yet even the most competent of ministers – and that is not saying much, given the depressingly low calibre of the current crop – is hugely dependent on senior civil servants if ideas and aspirations are to be effectively realised.
This government has sometimes appeared determined to sour its relationship with the civil service, unceremoniously sacking officials and eschewing the doctrine of ministerial responsibility to put civil servants in the dock. The next government will almost certainly be welcomed by the civil servants irrespective of their personal political views but desperate for a competent administration keen to make things happen. It would be wise not to squander such a dowry.
The next government should also be prepared to invite experts from the private sector to help it get things done. Gordon Brown liked the idea of “a government of all the talents”. But the people he turned to in order to achieve this, inevitably branded “goats”, were put into the House of Lords in order to allow them to become ministers. Few wanted this political office, with the broad responsibilities it brought, and few flourished.
Yet the benefits of bringing in outside expertise are potentially huge. The success of Kate Bingham in overseeing the UK’s Covid vaccine programme is a glittering example of what can be achieved when an individual is given responsibility for a single target and the power to achieve it. This should be the model which Keir Starmer looks to emulate: tasking individuals to oversee specific projects and giving them access to the civil service to achieve success. They don’t need to be encumbered with ministerial office for they are answerable to parliament through the minister who oversees the project.
Starmer should already be courting a herd of people in the Bingham mould to help overcome the huge challenges the country faces.