Brexit is a political challenge on an unprecedented scale. The process of exiting the European Union impacts every government department, and requires a level of co-ordination that UK governments have rarely managed to achieve. Here, the University of Manchester’s Dave Richards and the University of York’s Martin Smith survey the size of the challenge facing our civil service, the 50 year history of previous attempts to deliver effective cross-Whitehall co-ordination, and the necessity of cultural and structural change in the civil service if it is to successfully adapt to our new political environment.


Brexit: No ‘running commentary’, or no plan at all?

The Civil Service and Brexit – what do we know so far? Beyond the much repeated mantra from the Prime Minister that there will be ‘no running commentary’ by the Government on the process itself, the only formal pronouncement is that  Article 50 will be triggered by March 2017.  Elsewhere, the May Government has moved swiftly to re-align the deck chairs on H.M.S. Whitehall.  The acts drawing all the headlines, mainly over the potential for some heated ‘departmentalitis’-style duelling, are the ministers of three portfolios singled-out as being at the vanguard of the process: David Davis at the  Department for Exiting the European Union; Liam Fox heading-up the  Department  for International Trade; and of course the Brexiteer’s very own D’Artagnan, Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

Accompanying these changes, has of course been the predictable stories that Brexit is going to lead to a) a wave of Whitehall expansionism as it gears up to delivering on the process; b) a financial field-day for both legal and private sector consultancy firms; and c) both!   The irony for some of this eventuality is not lost:  ‘Leavers of the right wing are united in their dislike of the public sector. Yet to leave, experts say that a “massive” wave of recruitment will be necessary.’

Elsewhere, less noticed, but perhaps as crucial has been the creation of the Cabinet Office’s Brexit Unit under Olly Robbins, formerly of the Home Office parish. Why?  Well if ever there has been a moment in the last 60 years of the need for Whitehall to act in a coherent and cohesive manner, it is now.  But then you might ask, surely Whitehall has already done some hard yards in putting together contingency plans to deal with Brexit, as is the norm in the run up to a General Election?   Yet the somewhat opaque picture emerging from Whitehall is that beyond some very limited precautionary work done on the part of the Bank of England and the Treasury  to placate the markets in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote, no one had a plan, never mind it being contingent!

David Cameron’s line was that there should be no contingency planning by Whitehall during the campaign, for fear of potentially politicising the process.  In practice, this did not strictly occur.  As Bernard Jenkin MP, recently wittingly let slip, in the lead up to the referendum Whitehall’s Permanent Secretaries were so vexed by the ban on any pre-Brexit discussions that they scurried off for an illicit away day to do just that.  The current Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood described this as doing some ‘confidential thinking’.  Even with the greatest minds in Whitehall conjoined together as one, the possibility that they would be capable of pulling together a Grand Strategy for Brexit at a one-off work’s outing, would surely be a task even beyond that of Hercules.

Since the referendum, and in the absence of any steer from a Government holding its cards firmly to its chest, much has been made of whether or not there should be a hard or soft exit, linked to the broader theme of what a grand strategy might entail.  Breaking the Whitehall Brexit purdah has been the somewhat infamous Deloitte ‘insider’ report.  It infers that rather than Whitehall doing the over-arching ‘vision-thing’ to address what Britain’s place in the world should be and how to deliver on it, instead officials have scurried back to their departments to work on 500 ‘Brexit-related’ projects.  Pulling all these component parts together in a cohesive way is no small challenge and prompts the obvious question, does Whitehall have a strong track record in delivering on what public administration wonks have long  referred  to as ‘joined-up government’ (JUG)?

‘Joined Up Government’ – 50 years and counting

A potted history of Whitehall and JUG would begin with the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report which enshrined the architectural arrangements of Whitehall.   It created a model of functionally distinct departments that meant they and not the central units of government (No.10, Cabinet Office and the Treasury) were resource-rich and powerful, developing the necessary expertise and organisational capability to command control of their policy domains.   Ever since, there has been an emergent need to overcome the pathology of departments acting in their own self-interest [departmentalism] rather than the wider interests of the Government.

Overtime, various governments have sought to address this pathology in different ways:

What binds all these reforms together has been the impulse to centralise as a means of imposing a coherence and rationality over the way Whitehall goes about its business.  It is an approach that fits hand-in-glove with the traditions associated with the Westminster Model.  In practice, the solutions to ‘departmentalism’, ‘wicked issues’ and ‘the blunders of government’ and the affecting of a cultural shift in Whitehall from hierarchical to horizontal, holistic or joined-up governance have rarely been achieved.

Rising to the challenge – what next for the civil service?

The current climate requires a sea change in Whitehall.  Civil servants are still trained as policy makers, but in a post-Brexit world the new priorities stress management, contract negotiation, project management and implementation.  So a skills gap is opening up, where officials are identified as lacking the ability to oversee complex contract negotiations.  Whitehall’s approach to large and complex problems is not defined as an issue of ‘project management’, as it would be in the private sector, but instead is seen in terms of delivering the normal run of business.

The vision of the Civil Service operating in a post-Brexit world is very different to the nineteenth century Northcote-Trevelyan paradigm. In a rapidly shifting environment of pluralised policy-making and delivery, officials need to become the ‘arbiters’ and ‘overseers’ of the system ensuring transparency, fairness and accountability in a fractured system of governance. They need new skills to oversee contracts, accountability and democratic processes, and ensure equity in a devolved and fragmented system.   In so doing, functional loyalty needs to be cast aside if the potential to deliver on a joined-up approach is to be realised.  This might involve an organisational and cultural shift from a departmental-facing to a problem-focused approach which is more flexible, smaller and digitally based.  It involves then a grand strategy for Whitehall, not countless officials beavering away on micro-Brexit projects in the sanctuary of their own departments.

In terms of policy solutions, we have laid out elsewhere some of the actions that could begin to address this challenge:

This would require a fundamental move from hierarchical bureaucracy to what we would label ‘cybernetic-squad’ bureaucracy. A recognition that in a post-Brexit world, there are certain, specialised bureaucratic/technical skills that are not linked to departmental functionalism, but which need to focus on specific problems, allow for flexibility, and rapid intervention. Expertise would no longer be located within a department, but to teams deployed to deal with particular projects or intractable problems. It would, however, require a very different ministerial-civil service relationship and more particularly, an overhaul of the Westminster Model.”