How Cabinet Office Works - Part 3
Updated: May 15
Calling all other metaphors but “the blob”
Let's imagine Cabinet is not a sham (part 1), and collective agreement was a thing that really did matter (part 2), then you would need to make sure that Cabinet did collectively agree on policy right? This is what Cabinet Office is for…
The job Cabinet Office has given itself is to identify and solve issues before they cause problems in case they get blocked at write around (which No.10 and HM Treasury summarily trample over anyway, but ignore that).
To ensure the supposed “smooth running of government” (can’t you sense the smoothness?) Cabinet Office have set up bits of governance between officials, commissioning departments to respond to certain issues, and a lot of talking with No.10 and Treasury to be seen to be involved in resolving them.
A big part of what Cabinet Office does is creating this operational apparatus for making big government decisions that don’t go to Cabinet, either because they want to keep the attendance smaller, they’re not that important, or want to make them quicker.
In recent years the most important have been two “Taskforces” - a silly name for what is essentially a Cabinet sub-committee. They are the Covid Taskforce and the Transition Taskforce to make decisions about, well, covid and the EU exit transition respectively.
In theory they were chaired by the PM, in practice they were Chaired by the most important role in government many of you will have never heard of… the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – or CDL. This is an obscure title that has been kept around to give the most senior Minister in Cabinet Office an obscure but important job
It’s been held by Oliver Letwin, who was Cameron’s closest ally after Osborne in the Coalition Government, as well as Damien Green and David Liddington, Theresa May’s closest allies in government, and Stuart Barclay – now Chief of Staff to Boris Johnson. It is a job for the Minister the Prime Minister most trusts. Well, except for the majority of the time in this government it was held by Michael Gove. As most of you will know, Gove is not exactly Boris’s best friend in government but certainly considered the most competent of Ministers (albeit competition is low) hence being put in charge of making all the administrative decisions around Covid and the Brexit Transition.
So the majority of the decisions related to Covid made in the past two years, were in practice made by Michael Gove. Obviously the big decisions such as lockdown and closing schools went to the PM – but most guidance and rules went to the Covid Committee.
After the PM and the Chancellor, Gove was the most important Minister in government during the first years of the Johnson premiership, just as Green and Liddington were under May. Gove became quite notorious for dragging Ministers theoretically more senior than him in front of his committee and giving them a hard time, Priti Patel in particular is said to begrudge Gove for her experience in front of his bully pulpit.
The power of the Cabinet Office is its closeness to No.10 and the Treasury, both metaphorically and physically, and its administrative power, when Cabinet Office committees become the decision making forums in government.
Obviously Gove was moved to lead on the PM’s other priority area – levelling up
And that’s again what Cabinet Office does. If an issue doesn’t sit clearly with a department then Cabinet Office often creates a team to sit on it
There was a Levelling Up Unit for instance, that began with a few people as part of their responsibilities in one small central team, then became a twenty person team, and then they moved over to the old Department of Communities as part of the rebrand when Gove was made its Secretary of State.
And the Cabinet Office has loads of these teams that spring up. Some temporary, some permanent, some have been there forever but who knows what they do, and plenty more just merge from one thing into another. For instance, the Brexit Transition taskforce basically took on the Department for Exiting the EU’s responsibilities. This team, post Brexit, partly merged into the Public Sector Recovery group - a team to look at the pandemic induced public sector backlogs, and then into the Supply Chains Taskforce - a team to look at clogged up supply chains, and also into other random teams on big and small issues from “Small Boats” to violence against women. In just the past couple of years there’s been a temporary team in Cabinet Office on social care, a permanent team on Disability Unit, a Net Zero team, one on Afghanistan Refugee Resettlement, numerous teams keep popping up to do stuff on Ukraine, then there’s a team called the Constitutional Unit that was set up by Gordon Brown to write a constitution and despite never doing so was never abolished, and there’s even something even mysterious called the Central Secretariat – which coordinates all these committees and groups. This goes part way to explaining why the Cabinet Office has almost 10k staff…
Let me repeat that. The Cabinet Office employs almost ten thousand people. This is the department whose basic duty is to provide the paperwork for Cabinet Government, which is itself a sham. Ten thousand people. That’s an army. The marine corps have just over seven thousand people. It’s more staff than in the entire Department for Education (~8k), which oversees the early years, school, further education, university, and children’s social care sectors. The Foreign Office, which now includes international development, and all the embassies and consulates over the world, just has four thousand people. HM Treasury, the most powerful department in government, just two thousand. No.10 has just enough for a good party.
The biggest Departments are those with loads of operation staff. For instance, the Department for Work and Pensions includes the staff from every job centre in the country, while the Ministry of Justice includes staff from every prison, and HMRC every tax official. [Source: Civil service staff numbers | The Institute for Government] But the Cabinet Office doesn’t do anything so functional as run a prison, a job centre, or a branch of the tax office. The Cabinet Office exists to house the Cabinet and act as it’s Secretariat…. There’s probably less than 200 people who work on that specifically, which is probably ten times more than required. So the other 9000 plus are doing what exactly?
A sizeable chunk of this will be running the Civil Service itself, led by the Chief Operating Officer of the Civil Service, Alex Chisholm, who runs this part of the organisation. This includes Civil Service reform, training, HR, all that stuff… But 9000? This vast number is from all those committees and little teams replicating like a virus or a bacterial cell and, much like a virus, distract the body politic by directing resources and attention to deal with it rather than getting on with their real functions.
Cabinet Office teams have no power or responsibility, they just coordinate other parts of Whitehall by commissioning information, managing meetings and generally looking busy. Their job is to create work, not address it. There is so much replication, so much bureaucracy, so much opaqueness and lack of clarity about what people do and why... It is an organisation that turns up the temperature of government, sets the metaphorical immune system off by generating paperwork but almost never addresses the cause of the problem. Individuals in Cabinet Office I’m sure will argue their job is very important, that they’re making things better, that government and policy would be a lot worse without them, but it really is a struggle to see how as a collective they add even to the square root of their parts…
Let's take the most senior official in all of the Cabinet Office, the most senior official in all of the government, as an example. The Cabinet Secretary – the Secretary of all the Secretaries - the effective Chief Executive of the Civil Service. Simon Case is the current incumbent. He was a Private Secretary to David Cameron, then a Private Secretary to Prince William, then Permanent Secretary of Downing Street – the smallest department of government that usually doesn’t have a Permanent Secretary and is struggling to find somebody to do the job post “partygate”. After this unusual stint Case was surprisingly (to outsiders) appointed Cabinet Secretary by Boris Johnson. Boris, Cameron, Prince William… this private school boy is at least well liked by Eton alumni.
The Cabinet Secretary acts as both Chief Executive of the Civil Service and the most senior adviser to the Prime Minister, so is very much in the PM’s inner circle - or is supposed to be. He (and it always has been a he) sits round the Cabinet table, has a private office, and probably is equivalent in power and authority to CDL – principally because he can write advice to the PM and has the PM’s ear. But, he’s also highly ineffective. This may be due to the personal inexperience and intellect of the current incumbent (who has been accused of lacking both), but it’s also because the role is nigh on impossible in modern times.
His responsibility is to run an organisation of nearly half a million people (~485k), be the chief policy adviser to the Prime Minister, and appreciate modern political and media sensitivities and priorities, all whilst being theoretically neutral. Indeed, this is the Cabinet Office’s problem – going back to that original purpose again, to broker collective agreement - it is a neutral broker between the rest of government. Officials there can’t be seen to take sides, from the Cabinet Secretary down.
Cabinet Office cannot be seen to criticise other departments work. The Cabinet Secretary can’t be seen to criticise his colleagues' work. And any student of modern media and politics knows that it is nearly impossible to draw attention to an issue without criticising it clearly and loudly. There are so many competing problems simultaneously in modern government, unless you say something is on fire nobody at the top of government will engage with it. So Cabinet Office only really addresses issues that are in the media, because only they highlight these problems so explicitly.
Cabinet Office has built a 9/10k strong army, has effectively put them all in bureaucratic straightjackets and gagged them, then said “fix this”. Instead, they act like a straightjacketed, gagged army would in the field, and just get into everyone else's way. In reality their own purpose is to exist, as by creating a “Task Force”, a committee or unit to tackle - small boats, Afghan refugees, supply chains, cost of living etc - government is pretending to be dealing with the problem. The ten thousand strong army exists not to fight but to pretend to, to provide announcement fodder so that the government can make it look like it is dealing with something by creating a central team to stomp around.
Or, for another metaphor and for those of you into physics, Cabinet Office is made up of a large mass of neutral parts that draws in resources from the galaxy of government around it from its sheer gravity but emits little light out into what it does and little energy. It is a body that exists to bend the light and gravity of the media. A neutron star at best, a black hole at worst. A virus or bacteria, a neutron star or blackhole, a straightjacketed army… none of these quite work, rather it’s a big bureaucratic… blob. Yes, I said it, the blob. It’s a blob that is a drain on the government's time and resources but the government also finds indispensable by providing a protective coating to No.10. Cabinet Office goes a long way into explaining why the government works the way it does, and why it works so badly. But it is too powerless to explain all the problems.
If you want to know where the real power lies, and the real problems are then read my blogs on Her Majestys’ Treasury...