Whitehall shake-ups may not always go to plan, say experts

Rishi Sunak, just over 100 days into the job of Prime Minister, has decided that the time is right to embark on a reorganisation of Government departments.

The move appeared to surprise many in Whitehall, with exact details of Mr Sunak’s plans something of a closely-guarded secret until Tuesday morning.

Mr Sunak is far from the first prime minister to come to office hoping to reconfigure how Whitehall wields power.

Last summer, during the Conservative leadership campaign, he offered a glimpse of his plans as he promised to create a standalone energy department upon becoming PM.

Several months and one prime minister later, Mr Sunak now has that opportunity.

But as experts and long-time government observers often warn, any government reorganisation is fraught with risk.

While it is comparatively easy for Mr Sunak to set out his vision for Whitehall reform, creating new departments and banishing others to history, it is not simply a matter of changing a few signs and shuffling a couple of desks.

Coronavirus – Sat Jan 22, 2022
A street sign giving directions to Parliament Street and Whitehall in London, England (Yui Mok/PA)

As a 2019 report by the respected think-tank the Institute for Government noted: “While a prime minister can announce a new department on a Friday and expect it to exist on the Monday, it will not be running at full capacity for months, if not years.”

Creating a new department or merging multiple offices comes with logistical headaches, fresh bureaucracy, a re-jigging of communications and of course plenty of work for HR staff.

Clearly, this is not cost free.

According to one Institute for Government estimate, the direct cost of a new department can be around £15 million, while the loss of productivity from staff as they adjust to a new organisation can cost up to £34 million.

Mr Sunak has clearly decided that now is the right time for his reforms, as Downing Street announced a set of changes including a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and the creation of a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

But as he faces major domestic challenges, restless Tory backbenchers and a resurgent Labour Party itching for the next general election, he will likely be aware that plenty can go wrong too with such departmental re-workings.

This can often if plans are not properly thought through, or happen purely for political reasons, the Institute for Government suggests.

Experts at the think-tank point to Theresa May’s decision in 2016 to create the Department for Exiting the EU, which was charged with “delivering Brexit”, as well as the Department for International Trade.

But they suggest that vague remits and less-than-clear roles within Government, however, for DExEU (as it was called in Whitehall) made it difficult for civil servants there to carve out a niche on Brexit.

Alex Thomas, an expert on the civil service and policy-making at the Institute for Government, told Times Radio: “It is rare that a machinery of government change really makes a difference and is actually worth the cost of making that change.

He emphasised that while changes can become a success and form an enduring part of Whitehall, that often is not the case.

“It’s sometimes worth making these changes, but I would really emphasise the cost,” he warned.

The Liberal Democrats, pointing to the likely cost of the reorganisation, called it a “vanity project”.

The party’s Cabinet Office spokeswoman Christine Jardine said: “This reshuffle will cost the public millions while failing to change the trajectory of this Government in crisis.

“Rather than fritter away tens of millions of taxpayers’ cash on costly vanity projects, Sunak should spend the money where it’s most needed.”

FDA general secretary Dave Penman also had a blunt warning about the consequences of major changes for staff and officials.

“Nearly three years after the last major machinery of government change creating FCDO, we’ve still not resolved all the pay consequences for staff. Now we have four new departments,” he tweeted.