The UK government strengthens its ability to deal with devolution

By Daniel Kenealy

Without any fanfare, the UK government has carried out a mini machinery of government change in Whitehall. The result is a new group within the Cabinet Office, called the UK Governance Group. You’d be forgiven for not noticing as the only trace of an online announcement is here. The webpage of Philip Rycroft was updated to reflect his appointment as Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and head of the new group.

Rycroft is a man with a long and impressive CV having held numerous senior appointments in the Scottish Government and the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. He has also spent time outside of the UK civil service, on secondment to the European Commission (as a member of Leon Brittan’s cabinet), and working in the private sector, most recently for the multinational Hutchison-Whampoa.

Rycroft was a key player, following Scotland’s independence referendum, in the Smith Commission process. The civil service secretariat constructed to support the Smith Commission – drawn from Whitehall, the Scottish Government, and Scottish Parliament – were effective in supporting that process in its attempt to reach agreement. Headed by a Treasury official, the secretariat reported to Lord Smith but was also accountable to Rycroft back in the Cabinet Office.

Under the UK coalition government (2010-2015) there were certain machinery of government changes that altered the structure of the centre of government. Part of the reason for that was the arrival of a Deputy Prime Minister from a different political party to the Prime Minister. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg needed some form of ‘office’ and Whitehall was restructured to reflect that. A Deputy Prime Minister’s Office was fashioned, based within the Cabinet Office, and headed up by a senior civil servant at Director-General level. Rycroft assumed that post in 2012, replacing Chris Wormald, and held it until the end of the coalition in May 2015.

Upon assuming the post of DPM, Nick Clegg’s main priorities were constitutional reform, social mobility, and rebalancing the economy (he thus failed to take control of a major department, a move criticised by some). To reflect the constitutional reform element of that, the civil servants responsible for constitutional change were moved from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office, working directly to the DPM.

For those who study public policy and government through the lens of historical institutionalism this will be interesting, reflecting how a decision taken at a certain point in time can shape and constrain future decisions. The decision to bring civil servants focusing on constitutional change into the centre of government changed the facts on the ground in Whitehall and shaped the decision that had to be taken following the end of the coalition era about what to do with those officials: Send them back to the Ministry of Justice? Send them to another department? Retain them in the Cabinet Office? A process of incremental change has culminated in the creation of a new grouping at the centre of government with the following remit:

The UK Governance Group was established in June 2015 to lead the UK government’s work on constitutional and devolution issues. It brings together under one command the Cabinet Office Constitution Group, the Scotland Office, the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland and the Wales Office. The Group will ensure that the civil service has an improved capability to support ministers in the vital challenge of sustaining the United Kingdom and the constitutional settlement.

With a forthcoming spending review promising cuts across non-protected departments the notion that more resources will be available to Rycroft to deliver the above aims is fanciful. Across Whitehall the mantra in the years to come will be ‘do more with less’. However, there are reasons to be optimistic about both the creation of this new group and the appointment of Rycroft to lead it.

Firstly, there is an undoubted need for strengthened capacity in this area. Former civil servants, ministers, and academics have gone before parliamentary committees time-and-again to complain both of the lack of coordination in the area of devolution, and of the lack of knowledge possessed across Whitehall. Compared to how departments have adapted to, say, membership of the EU, adaptation to the UK’s system of devolution has been slow and patchy. One of the key tasks of this new group will be to raise the profile of devolution and the knowledge of it across Whitehall.

Furthermore, by appointing a Permanent Secretary to ‘look after’ the portfolio access to the top levels of the civil service is created. The Whitehall Permanent Secretaries meet together on a Wednesday to discuss ongoing and pressing issues. For the first time there will now be a voice at that table concerned primarily with governance, devolution, and the constitution. This is to be welcomed.

Finally, creating such a unit at the very centre of government – in the Cabinet Office – may entice civil servants who would not usually take an interest in such matters to apply for positions in the group. That may even trickle down to the Scotland and Wales Offices. Although they will remain distinct departments, with a relevant Secretary of State, the new Permanent Secretary will be responsible for them. This might have the effect of bringing departments that are too often seen as on the fringes of government into the heart of government. Again this could potentially have a positive impact on recruitment.

Coordination at the centre of government matters for issues that, by their nature, span government departments. The European and Global Issues Secretariat, for example, has performed this function – under various guises – since 1973. EGIS is a small unit but what makes it effective is its location in the Cabinet Office, its proximity to senior figures in government including (and especially) the Prime Minister, and the strong links it has built up to Whitehall departments. The new UK Governance Group can learn much from its example.

Certainly the impact of devolution across Whitehall departments is not likely to lessen in the coming years, with changes to the devolution settlement in Wales and Scotland lying ahead. Changing structures can’t solve all of the problems Whitehall faces in this area, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

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Daniel Kenealy is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government, where he directs the Master of Public Policy programme. His research interests include structures of government, public administration, devolution, and the core executive.

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