Do we need civil servants to be the policy gurus for our services, asks Richard Berry. Indeed, do we need Whitehall at all?
The chief executive of the NHS, David Nicholson, says he would like more resources to be shifted from national policymakers to local budgets, suggesting he “wants to see up to 90 per cent of resources held by the Department of Health in the hands of the NHS”.
A welcome move, but his intervention does raise another question. Is there a point to the DH any longer? In fact, do we still need government departments at all?
The debate has several fronts.
First, there is the hiving off of departmental functions into quangos and other agencies. In social care alone, the Social Care Institute for Excellence spreads good practice, the Care Services Improvement Partnership “implements national policies for local benefit”, Skills for Care and the General Social Care Council develop the workforce and the Commission for Social Care Inspection monitors services.
Most departments have similar lists of associated agencies doing specialised functions. Also, we are devolving power away from Whitehall. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own governments. And there are ever increasing calls to boost the powers of local authorities, including in health and social care.
This is not about reducing state spending. As Nicholson points out, it is about putting power and resources into the hands of those who will use them best, whether they are specialists or those at the front line. The snag is that government departments appear unable to let go. For almost every devolved function, it seems the departments retain a team working in the same area.
This is needless replication, fostered arguably by Whitehall self-importance. Of course, we wouldn’t want departments to disappear. They must exist as the vehicle for elected ministers to set the overall policy direction. Without vast bureaucracies to administer, they’d be better at doing this. And they could probably do it with a couple of hundred staff each.
Richard Berry is policy officer at London Councils