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Professor Matthew Juniper talks about his role as a commissioner for the Institute for Government

Professor Matthew Juniper talks about his role as a commissioner for the Institute for Government

Professor Matthew Juniper

Since March 2023, Matthew Juniper has been a commissioner for the Institute for Government’s (IfG) Commission on the Centre of Government. ‘Power with purpose’ is the final report. The report finds that No.10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury are not equipped to meet the challenges facing the United Kingdom in the 21st century.

Without doubt, the biggest structural problem is the power of the Treasury, which is stronger, better resourced, and more focused than the offices supporting the Prime Minister. By controlling spending, the Treasury can bounce departments into adopting its favoured policies, which history suggests tend to balance the books rather than grow the economy.

Professor Matthew Juniper

The Commission’s conclusions draw on a year of interviews with former prime ministers, leading scientists, senior civil servants, local government, the private sector, and charities. You can watch the key findings in the video below

A PDF of the report can be downloaded here.

We spoke to Matthew about his role as commissioner for the Institute for Government.

What is the Institute for Government and what do they do?

The Institute for Government is an independent think tank set up in 2008 by the Sainsburys’ charitable foundation. It explores how government works and how it could work better.

How did the brief to examine the Centre of Government come about?

The Historian Anthony Seldon approached the Institute for Government in 2023 about a commission focused on how the centre of government can work better. He has written biographies of every prime minister since John Major and was particularly motivated by Tony Blair’s experience in 1997: Labour had been out of power for 18 years and did not have any institutional memory in government. The UK may be in a similar position in 2024 and part of the brief was to help the next government, whichever party it is, to hit the ground running.

Why were you asked to be a commissioner?

Honestly, I am not sure, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity. In 2022, I had been involved in a report from the IfG on attracting scientists and businesspeople into the civil service. It was a febrile time: Boris Johnson had driven a hard Brexit through parliament over the objections of most businesses. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's chief adviser, had written a blog calling for 'weirdos and misfits' to join him at Number 10. Having shaken everything up he then resigned.

The civil service knew that it needed more external expertise and wanted to recruit effectively, so the IfG set out a roadmap for this. I must have helped them sufficiently to be invited to join the commission on the centre of government the following year.

Who did you interview?

We had input from around forty people, ranging from three ex-Prime Ministers, two ex-Chancellors, many senior civil servants, business leaders, political advisers, local politicians, academics, and senior civil servants from overseas. As is customary, we could report what was said but not who said it, so they were all candid about the problems at the centre, possible solutions, and what would be daft.

What are the Institute for Government’s recommendations?

Five of the seven recommendations are about the civil service structure that surrounds the Prime Minister and the cabinet. I think, however, that the most interesting recommendations are the other two: the first (“agree priorities at the start of a parliament”) and the last (“reflect these priorities in a shared strategy, budget, and performance management process owned collectively at the centre of government”).

The first recommendation was inspired by the coalition government from 2010 to 2015, which had to write a programme for government post-election rather than follow manifesto pledges made pre-election. Whatever interviewees thought of the policies of the coalition, there was broad agreement that they were implemented effectively because the centre had set a clear achievable direction early and there was a high cost to both parties if they deviated from it.

I think it would be beneficial to expect a new government to tweak their manifesto pledges once they come to power because these pledges will have been created by under-resourced data-poor political teams while in opposition and they would benefit from revision by well-resourced data-rich civil servants when a party starts in government.

The last recommendation is a swipe at the Treasury’s power to distort a government’s strategy by prioritizing fiscal policy (balancing the books) over economic policy (investing for growth) and the misalignment between the government’s overall strategy and the spending decisions made by the Treasury. All interviewees agreed that balancing the books is important but that chronic neglect of growth has contributed to poor productivity growth in the UK for decades. People involved in the project who had worked in the Treasury made this point particularly persuasively, as did Gordon Brown at the report’s launch, and the report itself devotes several pages to it.

What do you think is the most important problem at the centre of government?

Without doubt, the biggest structural problem is the power of the Treasury, which is stronger, better resourced, and more focused than the offices supporting the Prime Minister. By controlling spending, the Treasury can bounce departments into adopting its favoured policies, which history suggests tend to balance the books rather than grow the economy. The Treasury can also create de facto spending policies without input or oversight from the rest of government, such as ‘eat out to help out’ under Sunak and tax credits under Brown.

If the PM and chancellor work well together and can translate their joint strategy into policy, budgets, and delivery, then this is not necessarily a problem. But if they disagree, or simply cannot decide how to implement a three-word slogan such as ‘Build Back Better’, the Treasury will decide policy by itself through budgets and spending reviews. The PM’s strength and the party’s strategy then matter little. Even Tony Blair at the height of his power had to ask Gordon Brown to ‘give me a hint’ ahead of the 1998 budget.

Did the commission consider solutions to this problem?

Yes. We considered proposals to take economic growth policy and/or public expenditure allocation away from the Treasury and give them to an office for economic growth and an office for budget and management. A similar idea was tried in the 1960’s with the Department for Economic Affairs under George Brown. This didn’t work and was described by one former senior official as ‘the wrong idea, headed by the wrong person’. Fundamentally, we concluded that it would be better to leave ownership with the Treasury, but to make decisions collectively between the Treasury and the centre, negotiating with departments.

We devoted several pages to a process that would build on the existing model of multi-year spending reviews. This is more complicated to describe and execute than simply creating a new office or department, but we were swayed by the warning of an experienced former minister that any plan for growth will fail unless it comes from an office with HM Treasury written on the door.

What are the other most important problems?

Every commissioner would give different answers to this. Many of our interviewees had worked at the centre of government so instinctively wanted to strengthen the central levers of power. As an outsider, however, I wondered why the centre should want so many levers at all. Surely it would be more effective for the centre to set only the strategic direction and then to follow up on implementation by the departments?

Fundamentally, this desire for control comes from the Prime Minister at the time who, whether in response to personal ambition, in reaction to rivals’ ambition, or in acquiescence to rolling news, wants to announce personal commitments, to dictate departmental policy, and to respond instantly to events.

The report recommends that “the centre should only do what only the centre can do” but pulls its punches on this. My naive solution would be to maximally devolve power and micro spending decisions to the departments and to question a different minister in parliament every week. In other words: more cabinet government and less presidential government.

The other glaring problem is recruitment and promotion in the civil service. The civil service values generalism over specialism, except in specific areas such as cyber security. Ambitious civil servants therefore rotate through roles quickly. An unfortunate consequence is that their knowledge and experience is continuously scattered across the service, where it fades rather than glows.

This scattering may have been appropriate in the 19th century, when communication was slow so expertise had to be dispersed, but it is not appropriate now, when communication is instant. As knowledge, information, and complexity accumulate in the world, so does the value of the expertise required to navigate them.

One commissioner said that “to be effective, you need ten experts and two generalists around the table; instead you have twelve generalists.” The report recommends that the civil service recruits more expertise from outside, but I think this addresses the symptom not the cause. I think the civil service should encourage ambitious and talented people to stay in posts for longer and then promote them based more on accumulated expertise than on their ability to turn their hand to anything.

As an outsider, did anything surprise you?

The chief scientific adviser of a government department told me: “as a chief scientific adviser, your secret weapon is that you are the only senior civil servant around the table who has read the briefing notes before a meeting.” An ex-senior civil servant was deeply amused by my dumb horror at this. Another added: “it's even worse; if you have read the notes, people assume that you are junior.” I don't know how widespread this is and whether it is due to excessive briefing notes, a recent lack of seriousness in government, or just a culture in which details are for juniors, but I had expected that the senior civil service would be more thorough.

What is the point of writing briefing notes that are not read? How can you make good decisions in a meeting without thinking through information beforehand?

All the people who impress me most in the commercial sector can master detail and see the big picture at the same time. It surprised me that this characteristic was valued less highly in the senior civil service than in the commercial sector because it underpins good advice and, ultimately, good decision-making.

How can scientists and engineers contribute?

I think it helps to distinguish between “science for policy” and “policy for science”. “Science for policy” happens through departmental chief scientific advisors and other government scientists, who are civil servants. The civil service wants to recruit many more scientists at all levels, in order to bring a more numerate and data-driven approach to government. There will be many opportunities, but I think a spell in the private sector first would be useful training.

“Policy for science” is the more important question right now. The UK is a mid-ranking power containing a world-leading scientific community with astonishing creativity. Our future will depend on how well we nurture this talent, fund pre-competitive research, spin this out commercially, and create high value jobs that cannot easily be replicated overseas.

I think we need a clinical focus on whether a research idea can work, whether the team has the right characteristics to make it work, and whether government investment will be justified if it does work. Above all, funding decisions must be made by people with the expertise and ability to review and judge these factors, who must read the briefing notes beforehand, discuss them with the researchers in person, and imagine they were putting their own money on the table.

William Hague, Tony Blair, and others wrote an excellent report in 2023, and the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology has a clear framework. I think we should start from these and adapt them as we learn more. We will be good at this.

What’s next?

While British politics from 2016 could be characterised by Gove’s quote ‘this country has had enough of experts … saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’, British politics since Covid has been more circumspect, now led by a Prime Minister who is more comfortable with detail and nuance than his immediate predecessors. I anticipate more seriousness after the next election, at least from the party in power.

There are several reports like ours to choose from, providing various blueprints for the centre of government. Ultimately, politics comes down to personalities, so the next government will create a blueprint that suits theirs. I am optimistic because I think we know what Britain’s problems are, know roughly what the solutions look like, and will have at least a decade of internal political stability to work on them. There is a strong desire for scientists and engineers to play pivotal roles in that future and I hope that we will all rise to that challenge.

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