An independent commission into the UK civil service has called for the roles of the most senior positions in each Whitehall department to be scrapped to improve the government’s performance.
The Commission for Smart Government, an independent review set up and led by former Conservative minister Lord Nick Herbert, said on Monday the government “must reform itself or fail” after the coronavirus pandemic, proposing sweeping changes to recruitment and departmental structures.
Its report argued that permanent secretaries should be replaced by a new chief executive role to give a “clear focus on strategy, execution and organisational effectiveness”, with a title that reflects a need for delivery and data-driven assessment instead of a more traditional courtier role.
It also called for all ministers to be located in one London office “to break down departmental barriers”.
The report is likely to be received favourably by the Johnson government, which has pledged to reform the civil service after Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who is overseeing the agenda, will attend the commission’s launch on Monday.
The agenda to reform Whitehall was the brainchild of Dominic Cummings, a former chief adviser to Boris Johnson. Since his departure from government last year, some in Whitehall believe the reform agenda has stalled.
Herbert said the pandemic had “revealed that our system of public administration urgently needs a fundamental overhaul” to ensure the country can deal with future challenges.
“As politicians begin to focus on rebuilding, it is crucial that they do not pass over the opportunity and the necessity to reform the machinery of government,” he said. “Without change, no amount of ambition or rhetoric will be sufficient to ensure that policy goals are delivered.”
Sir Suma Chakrabarti, the ex-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a former senior Whitehall official who also sits on the commission, said the government needed to take a more strategic view on reform.
“We encourage it to adopt our proposals to replace its outdated and ineffective ways of planning activity and spending, and government structures. These are vital if it is to tackle the choppy waters ahead and achieve its goal.”
The commission also said the prime minister should have the power to appoint ministers who are not MPs or peers to “bring greater talent” into government. It also supported a long-mooted idea in Whitehall of creating a “prime minister’s department” to support the implementation of the government’s policy agenda.
Within this new department, the commission has called for a “Treasury Board” to take over spending responsibilities and better integrate financial planning between Number 10 and the chancellor of the exchequer at Number 11 Downing Street. Secretaries of state should also be allowed to form a “council of advisers” within their departments to bring outside talent into government.
Echoing the ideas of Cummings, the commission called for better training for ministers and officials, mirroring business schools. It also called for a Whitehall headhunter to recruit top private sector talent.
Sir Ian Cheshire, a former chair of Barclays who is also on the commission, said the civil service’s human resource practices had failed to keep up with the private sector and their reform would be crucial to improving government performance.
“The civil service has been professionalising itself in recent years, especially in its functional arms of finance and HR, but remains a long way behind best practice in areas such as financial planning, talent development and data. There are huge opportunities to make government more effective through radical reform.”
The commission also called for a new single government app to allow citizens to access all functions of the state, from parking fines to passports.