As Prime Minister Scott Morrison embarks on a wholesale overhaul of government departments, a UK report warns that going fast doesn’t always win the race when it come to reshaping the machinery of government.
Tim Durrant, associate director at the Institute for Government (IfG) and co-author of Creating and Dismantling Government Departments, says the UK can appear quite nimble. Its Prime Minister can create departments essentially in a day.
“All they have to do is have a piece of secondary legislation, a ‘transfer of functions’ order, to say ‘this is now the secretary for state of whatever’s job’,” he tells Government News.
This can happen months after a restructure and, as a ‘negative resolutions procedure’, passes automatically unless a parliamentarian objects.
“So there’s little opportunity for parliamentarians to get involved,” says Durrant. “And even if they do, they can’t sort of force the government to think again the way they can in Canada.”
In Canada, if the House of Commons objects to departmental changes, restructures can be unwound even if they are half-completed.
A cautionary tale from Brexit
The trouble is, notes Durrant, that restructuring departments is a big job. Time must be taken to bed changes in, fund them and organise them. Often UK departments are expected to be up and running in days, with no additional resources on offer from Treasury.
When staff are spending a lot of time working out who is in charge of what, what their email address is, when they’re getting paid, and so on, progress is even slower. They cannot focus on core tasks – let alone the priorities that sparked the restructure.
Restructuring departments is a big job. Time must be taken to bed changes in, fund them and organise them.
Even worse, their remits can change quickly too. One example is the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) set up in 2016. Typically, UK reasons for making departmental changes include sending a political message to voters; the then new PM, Theresa May, wanted to show that she was taking Brexit seriously.
“Initially DExEU was to run the exit negotiations and consider the future EU-UK relationship. Then May wanted to take the key decisions: a kind of Cabinet Office Europe unit was set up. Next, DExEU was focusing on No Deal planning, and then preparing for the next negotiation phase,” Durrant says.
“Now Boris Johnson has moved No Deal planning to the Cabinet Office – focusing DExEU mainly on future relationship negotiations, and obviously they’re still not at that stage (as the terms of Brexit have not yet been agreed at the time of writing).”
Former staffer Ben Knight described the DExEU as “dysfunctional” in a Briefings for Brexit opinion piece. “The abiding sense was that nobody quite knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing. Delivering Brexit was the stated aim of the government – but the reality was very different,” he writes.
Counting the costs
IfG research finds that creating a new department costs around £15 million (A$29 million), plus up to £34 million (A$66 million) from the loss of productivity as staff adjust to the new organisation.
We’re not saying that creating, changing, or moving around government departments is always a bad idea, but it’s about thinking it through and making it clear why you’re doing it and recognising that there are costs.
The bill tops £170 million (A$328 million) for the set-up of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2001, which folded employment support into an expanded social security department. These services are arguably a natural fit and the change was widely considered successful (the DWP still exists).
The high cost, though, highlights that “doing it properly” takes time and resources. Additionally, new UK departments are often given little support of any kind, according to the IfG report.
“If you really want people to be focused on a particular problem right now, it’s not really realistic if you’ve got to set up a new department to do it,” Durrant confirms.
Instead, the UK could make better use of current ministers, supporting them to focus on specific additional priorities, or set up joint offices, ministers and funding. Regardless, objectives should be clear and communicated, with appropriate resources assigned.
“Our key recommendation is just to take time to think about it,” says Durrant. A full cost-benefit analysis, including recognition of the time needed to achieve full functionality, is essential.
This year’s report builds on one in 2010 which drew similar conclusions.
“We’re not saying that creating, changing, or moving around government departments is always a bad idea, but it’s about thinking it through and making it clear why you’re doing it and recognising that there are costs, and not just immediate costs: it takes a while to get up and running,” Durrant concludes.
“And if there is a big-priority issue, it may not be the best way of solving that issue.”
*Fleur Doidge reports for Government News from London
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