Letter to the Sunday Times on machinery of government changes

Posted on: April 28th, 2015

Learn from past mistakes and don’t tinker with ministries

If senior civil servants are creating a blueprint potentially to scrap or merge up to nine government departments, we hope their advice to incoming ministers will properly reflect the lessons of previous changes to the machinery of government (“Nine ministries face axe”, News, last week).

In our experience as former civil servants now involved in the Better Government Initiative, such changes often cost money rather than save it. They waste effort that could have been better used on other ways of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of departments. They would divert Ministers and top management from addressing the key challenges facing an incoming government.

One of the good things about the coalition has been its refusal to tinker with departmental boundaries as a form of political theatre.

Bringing together the separate offices and secretaries of state that currently cover Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland makes sense. Functions relating to education, industry, energy, and so on can be parcelled up in many different ways but such reshuffling does not in itself save money.

“Super-ministries” may offer marginal savings, at the risk of ministerial overload and muddled responsibilities. One of the suggestions, merging the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, could compromise the rule of law.

In government, as elsewhere, collaboration across organisational boundaries is worth more than structural change in getting things done. If changes are to be made, they should be accompanied by publication of the business cases that underpin them.

Richard Mottram,
Chairman, Better Government Initiative