Power needs to be devolved to Yorkshire not just bits of Government departments - Simon Kaye

The contest to become the next Prime Minister grinds on. With mixed feelings, we see both candidates fleetingly turn their attention from their endless argument about tax – the ultimate hostage to fortune given the state of the economy – to something else: the need for Whitehall reform.

This is classic territory for a fresh leader. Every Prime Minister seems to arrive in office with the ambition to improve the machinery of government.

There is no machine that can turn bad policies into good outcomes, of course. Civil servants sometimes – unfairly – get the blame for doing exactly what they are asked to. And too often the only proposed solution is to try to arbitrarily reduce their numbers.

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The Whitehall system has deep flaws. Indeed, recent experience suggests that it is in desperate need of reform.

Rishi Sunak has called for Civil Servants to spend a year in the regions.Rishi Sunak has called for Civil Servants to spend a year in the regions.
Rishi Sunak has called for Civil Servants to spend a year in the regions.

But far too often, the only proposed path for change is an effort to arbitrarily reduce the numbers of civil servants. There is no sign that either candidate intends to reverse Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plan to cut 91,000 jobs over three years.

So what do the prime ministerial candidates want? Liz Truss made a first splash by suggesting that the civil service is too “woke”, and a home to “anti-Semitism”. You can guess exactly how well this, as yet unevidenced, claim has been received by civil servants themselves.

On the face of it, Rishi Sunak’s intervention is more interesting. Speaking to The Yorkshire Post this week, Sunak connected the need for an improved civil service to a wider picture of decentralisation.

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The big idea? Officials should be recruited from a greater range of places, and should be seconded outside London and to different sectors. He said: “I want to see civil servants in Yorkshire and working for our fantastic businesses here – so that they understand the issues facing those businesses.”

This is fair enough, of course. Whitehall is not a particularly diverse place – especially when you reach the upper echelons of the civil service. The senior civil service is often a collection of people with similar backgrounds, experiences, educations, and hometowns.

These are the people who not only present the options that ministers choose between, but who are also tasked with putting high-level strategy into action. This has huge implications for the implementation of policies locally – and often the policy experts in Whitehall don’t have experience of localities beyond the leafier bits of London or the South East where they grew up.

Sunak’s ideas sit in the same category as current efforts to shift parts of central government departments to different cities around the country.

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Our government machine is deeply over centralised. In fact, ours is arguably the most centralised country, of comparable size, anywhere in the world. 95p in every pound is raised by central government.

Local government in this country is not allowed to decide whether to hold some of its meetings online, or how often it can send information magazines to residents.

It’s therefore no surprise that the lion’s share of funding – for research and development, for transport, and more – ends up in London and the South East. This structural and cultural over-centralisation is also why local public health experts were so often excluded from the heart of the pandemic response.

This highlights the poverty of Sunak’s ambitions. Of course we want a more diverse civil service and a more efficient government machine. But neither of these is a substitute for the harder and more important work of ensuring that Whitehall simply does less.

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Right now, central government is expected to micromanage: it has the impossible task of coming up with policies that will work just as well for Wakefield as they will for Walthamstow. With this much to juggle, it’s little wonder that the centre’s grip will slip when the big challenges come along.

This is about the deepest and most systemic biases in our system of government. Putting a bit of a government department in Leeds and asking a few more officials to do work experience in Doncaster – though reasonable ideas in themselves – just isn’t going to be the solution.

There are huge challenges ahead: recession, inflation, climate change, levelling up. Government will need to be match fit. The best way to get there is to reimagine the state: start devolving real power across places like Yorkshire – not finding excuses to keep it concentrated in central government.

Dr Simon Kaye is director of policy at the think tank Reform.