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Integrating Whitehall: the case for a Department for Public Sector Reform

To achieve the goal of a coordinated approach to complex public service issues, integration must happen in Whitehall argues MV’s Emmet Regan. This article was published in the MJ on 24 October 2017 – view here.

Our public services will face unprecedented challenges over the next five years. The near impossible trifecta of rising complexity, increasing demand and reducing budgets will test the very fabric of our public services. Whether it is health, education, criminal justice or social care, the services are different but their challenges common. However, we seek to address these common challenges in an isolated fashion. We rely on traditional Whitehall structures of departments with singular focus acting in isolation to solve these multi-faceted challenges. Central government preaches the importance of integration yet relies on a governmental system designed for the 20th century with limited ability to work in a joined up and integrated fashion.

We can no longer address the big public service reform issues of our day such as mental health, health and social care integration and educational attainment in the traditional fashion. In response to the results of the EU referendum in 2016, Whitehall knew the pressing need to create a new department (Department for Exiting the EU) to deal with the challenge of Brexit. We must now adopt this approach for the domestic agenda. Now is the time to be bold, now is the time to deliver integration across central government, and now is the time for a Department for Public Service Reform (DPSR).

Designed to be small, agile and focused on solving complex problems, DPSR would provide one central voice in Whitehall to implement change on a scale we have not seen before. Understanding the need to work across Whitehall to unify and join up the response to our challenges is key. While Brexit dominates the political landscape, our public services need a champion to deliver change and integrate central government.

The sole purpose of the new department is to deliver the public service reform agenda. The idea is not to create a ‘Kafkaesque’ situation where a large department overseas even larger departments. Rather, a streamlined and nimble department focussed on data, performance management, policy, delivery and problem solving to deliver reform. DPSR will practice and as well as preach integrated government and joined-up thinking, understanding common challenges to deliver common solutions.

Rising demand and increased complexity can only be tackled by understanding the complex reasons behind them. Government has to reflect the complexity of our lives and the way we live them. We must also understand how we can join up budgets and resources to get more than the sum of their parts. Acknowledging the interplay of issues like health, social care and the criminal justice system will demonstrate the need to act in a different way. DPSR can be blind to Whitehall structure, working across departments to deliver systemic change. With the focus of a Secretary of State, public service reform would have a seat at the cabinet table and the focus of the Prime Minister in a joined up way.

This approach has been utilised elsewhere. In response to the financial crash in 2007, the Irish Government established the Department for Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) to provide a coordinated approach to complex public service issues. Additionally, within the UK, the early examples of system change in devolution areas like the creation of the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership demonstrate the need and the ability to do things differently.

When it comes to the reformation of our public services, we cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results. If we want to have sustainable public services, we must change, we must integrate and we must do it now.

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