In 2017, the Constitution Unit conducted the first-ever study of the work of non-executive directors (NEDs) within Whitehall. In this blog post, project leader Robert Hazell and Lucas Chebib, one of the project’s research volunteers,discuss the methodology and findings of the report.
The study was carried out over 18 months by four former senior civil servants, with assistance from five research volunteers. The team compiled a detailed database of all NEDs; organised a survey; conducted almost 70 interviews; and tested their findings in private briefings and seminars. The full report is published here; what follows is a summary of the main points. Continue reading →
The role of non-executive directors in Whitehall departments has developed over recent decades. A new Constitution Unit project, led by former senior civil servants, aims to investigate the role of these outside experts and the impact they have had. David Owen introduces the project and invites contributions from those who have been involved with the work of non-executives.
What role is there for outside expertise in the running of a government department? For some time now in the UK, one way in which such input has been made has been through non-executive board members or non-executive directors. The Constitution Unit is undertaking a project to look at who non-executives are, what they do and the impact that they have had. The work is being led by former senior civil servants Alan Cogbill, Hilary Jackson and Howard Webber. We have felt encouraged following discussions with Cabinet Office, who have expressed interest in seeing the results.
Non-executives: the evolving government approach
Governments have drawn on external contributors for a long time, but the term ‘non-executive’ is thought to have been first used in the early 1990s. In 2005, the Treasury set out guidance on non-executives in its Corporate Governance Code. The code commented that much what it said of non-executives, as well as of the operation of departmental boards, was new, ‘reflecting an agenda which has developed rapidly’. It recommended that each central government department board should have at least two non-executives, preferably more, with the aim of providing support and challenge.
Following the 2010 election, the use of non-executives developed with the appointment of a lead non-executive for government, former BP chief executive Lord Browne.
This drive formed part of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s wider civil service reform plan for the civil service. He saw non-executives as having a key role in delivering savings, providing the kind of input for which consultants had previously been paid millions of pounds.
Theresa May’s new cabinet brought the first significant restructuring of Whitehall departments since 2008. In this post Peter Waller considers the pros and cons of these changes. He concludes that the downsides outweigh the advantages, suggesting that there were alternative options that would have allowed dedicated Brexit and International Trade ministers to join the cabinet without the difficulties involved in establishing new departments.
In announcing her new cabinet, Theresa May indulged in a certain amount of Whitehall restructuring. Two new departments were created – the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade. To balance the books (at least in part) she abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, transferring its functions to the Business department. The Business department (now formally the rather turgidly titled Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) in turn lost responsibility for higher education and science policy, which returned to the education department from where it had come almost a decade earlier.
The new Prime Minister thus made the first significant changes to the Whitehall infrastructure since 2008, when Gordon Brown created DECC. David Cameron, whether by design or lack of interest, had maintained the departmental structure he inherited. So the 2016 changes found Whitehall needing to set up new departments, something it had not done for half a generation.
So are these changes likely to prove worthwhile? What are the pros and cons of marking a national turning point – which Brexit undoubtedly was – with new departments with a new focus? Writing as someone who spent a high proportion of my Whitehall career in departments whose boundaries were constantly changing, I rather sadly conclude that in this area decisive action by Theresa May is likely to be rather more troublesome than the benign neglect of her predecessor.
The implications of Brexit for the UK’s trade arrangements, a subject on which Leave and Remain campaigners have sharply disagreed, were addressed in the first two seminars of a series on Brexit hosted by the Constitution Unit and the UCL European Institute. Drawing on the comments of the seminar speakers, Oliver Patel discusses the impact that post-Brexit trade negotiations would have on Whitehall and the EU. Whitehall, in particular, would face a number of practical difficulties. Though not insurmountable, these mean that the process of negotiating new trade deals would be far from straightforward.
All of a sudden, everyone is talking about trade deals. The EU referendum Leave campaign argue that outside the EU the UK will prosper as it will be able to negotiate favourable trade deals with growing economies like India and Australia. Remain campaigners argue that this will not be easy and that being in the EU gives us more clout. Their cause was boosted by Barack Obama’s claim that the UK would have to join the back of queue if it wanted its own trade deal with the US.
Our first Brexit seminar and associated briefing paper assessed the impact of Brexit on Whitehall and Westminster. The panel agreed that the process of withdrawing from the EU would cause major headaches for Whitehall. This is primarily because of the various international negotiations which the UK would subsequently have to engage in, such as a withdrawal agreement with the EU and new free trade agreements with non-EU countries.
Sir Simon Fraser, former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), noted that the UK government currently employs very few (if any) trade negotiators, as the function has long been outsourced to Brussels. He concluded that the practical challenge of negotiating multiple international agreements in the event of Brexit – whilst also managing the ongoing business of government – would be huge. However, he does not view the challenge as insurmountable, so long as Whitehall increases capacity and expertise in key areas and co-ordinates the process effectively.
Much will be expected of the civil service if Britain votes to leave the EU. Every Whitehall department and diplomats in Brussels will be embroiled in complex negotiations to thrash out a series of new relationships. Without additional resources and expertise, the UK’s ability to obtain the best possible deal may be hampered, writes Nick Wright.
Following a vote to leave the EU, the UK would face an extensive round of highly complex negotiations to agree and manage withdrawal. Given the all-encompassing nature of EU membership, a crucial question is whether Whitehall – particularly the FCO and Cabinet Office – is sufficiently equipped and resourced to achieve a satisfactory outcome (whatever that might entail). In short, given the likely scope and intensity of the negotiations, could Whitehall face a ‘capabilities-expectations gap’ in terms of what it must deliver while simultaneously managing day-to-day government business?