John Healey: A Whitehall revolution to make power accountable

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IN 2015, Yorkshire needs a new government, but it also needs a new way of governing. In the run up to the general election on May 7, attention will focus on the fight between the political parties.

But whatever the colour of the next government, big changes in the way government works are needed to meet the challenges our country and our region faces.

Last year I established GovernUp as a new, cross-party think-tank to help tackle this problem, and this month we launched our interim proposals.

The reforms we recommend would have an impact right across the country. Too often changes to the machinery of government are seen as just about London. But civil service reform is about Wakefield and Whitby as well as Whitehall.

More than £46bn of government spending goes on Yorkshire each year, or over £8,500 per person. Despite coalition cutbacks, there are still almost half a million people in Yorkshire employed in our vital public services, and thousands more working for firms who receive public sector contracts.

Nationally, we have an unprecedented opportunity.

For the first time since the Second World War, all three major parties 
have current or recent experience in office.

All understand the importance of good policy. All know that the effectiveness of the policy delivery machine is also vital. And all see the flaws.

GovernUp is making the most of this unique moment to build a wide consensus by researching six areas: the lessons from governments across the world; the shape of the centre of government; the centre-local balance; the skills needed in a modern civil service; the role of today’s politicians and the opportunities presented by the digital revolution.

The starting point for our analysis is that there is both a necessity and an opportunity for change.

The necessity is driven by the imperative for greater efficiency in public spending, compounded by rising public expectations.

The opportunity is the potential of technology and new ways of working. A number of common themes emerge.

First, the centre of government needs to be strengthened, with a greater focus on securing value for money. A more unified strategic core for government, “One Whitehall”, could be developed by turning the policy and headquarters functions of the Civil Service into a single organisation, built around the elected government’s priorities.

Second, government needs do much more at a local level. A landmark Decentralisation Act would enshrine a presumption that services should be delivered locally, reducing the ability of central government to influence day-to-day management, with more public spending controlled locally.

Third, we have to improve public accountability of those in government. One way to do this is to turn the operational parts of the Civil Service into autonomous public service agencies with directly visible and accountable leadership. And I’d like to see the chief executives of essential agencies like JobCentre Plus, Environment Agency or Border Force appointed by Ministers and subject to full confirmation hearings by House of Commons select committees.

Fourth, leadership and skills across government are not good enough – in civil servants and ministers. More specialisation and, in some cases, better remuneration is required for the civil service which needs to learn from the best of both public and private sectors.

But Ministers, too, have to be better equipped to do their job. So the coaching or mentoring which is commonplace in other organisations should also be expected for ministers. And both ministers and top officials would benefit from longer periods in post.

Fifth, since Ministers are ultimately accountable as the elected part of our government system, they need the resources to ensure that their policies 
are delivered. Extended ministerial offices to provide more experienced and better qualified teams to support Ministers, not to politicise Whitehall, are a good idea. There would be strict restrictions on party political work but greater scope to seek advice from outside Whitehall.

For Labour’s part we have backed some of the current coalition Government’s civil service reforms, and will learn from these in making our own changes.

As a Labour politician, I believe in the power of the state to transform society and people’s lives for the good – from the NHS, to the minimum wage to support for regional development. So I’ve always believed the centre-left has a special duty to ensure that government is both as effective and the best value for money as possible.

If we fail, we undermine the basis for asking taxpayers and voters to continue support for our public services. For the sake of Yorkshire, and the UK, I hope this is a message the next government takes to heart.

John Healey is Labour MP for Wentworth & Dearne in South Yorkshire, and was a Government Minister from 2001-2010.