Whitehall has a new acronym – the EMO. Not some exotic bird, but Extended Ministerial Offices, first announced by Francis Maude in July. Last week Cabinet Office published guidelines fleshing out the details: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261358/November_-_EMO_Guidance_to_Departments.pdf
EMOs will have three categories of staff: civil servants in the traditional Private Office role, Special Advisers, and external appointees. The main expansion is likely to be in the third category, and the Civil Service Commission have created a new exception to allow recruitment without competition of chosen individuals as temporary civil servants for up to five years. The previous maximum was two years: the new exception will allow outsiders to be recruited for the whole of a Parliament.
Ministers who want an EMO will need first to agree the mix of staff and the budget with their Permanent Secretary, before seeking the approval of the Prime Minister. The budget must come within the department’s overall allocation. The main quality control will come from Cabinet Office and the PM’s Chief of Staff in scrutinising EMO proposals: the PM is unlikely to give this his personal attention. A few Ministers may go up from two Special Advisers to three. But the main test will lie with the external appointees: will they be additional cheerleaders, or serious policy experts? No 10 will be alert to negative headlines (eg The Times 19 November) and may be tight in what they allow through.
There are two twists in the tail for Ministers who want an EMO. The first is that at least one member of the EMO must focus on implementation, reporting to the Head of the Cabinet Office Implementation Unit. So there is a direct line reporting line from the EMO to the centre on whether the department is meeting its targets. The second is that requests must include ‘specific proposals for strengthening the offices of junior Ministers … of a different party’. Where no EMO is planned, junior ministers can put forward their own proposals. This is primarily to strengthen the support for the dozen Lib Dem junior ministers scattered round Whitehall, who feel isolated and outgunned. But it will require courage for them to go it alone: they must discuss their proposals first with their Secretary of State, who may not want to give the Lib Dems additional firepower.
Will many Ministers want an EMO? In the remainder of this Parliament that seems unlikely. Maude will have to have one, to set an example; but only a handful of colleagues may follow. Energetic Ministers like Gove have already found ways of recruiting additional advisers, and may not want to seek approval from the centre. And outsiders may be reluctant to sign up for an 18 month passage when the ship is beginning to run out of steam and they may be paid off in 2015. So the real test will be in the next Parliament. In an interview with Civil Service World Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office spokesman Jon Trickett said that he supported the government’s plans for EMOs [link – http://www.civilserviceworld.com/trickett-civil-service-reforms-ad-hoc-with-hectoring-tone/]. But that was off the cuff, in the margins of the Labour party conference; we don’t know Miliband’s views. If we have another hung Parliament, the future of EMOs might depend not on Francis Maude, but on the Lib Dems carrying his idea into the next government if they hold the balance of power.