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Making and breaking Whitehall departments: a guide to machinery of government changes

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The ability of British Prime Ministers to rearrange Whitehall departments serves as a powerful tool to meet existing and emerging policy challenges and one we think should be preserved. Politically, the configuration of departments provides the framework for Cabinet membership and allows a Prime Minister to put a stamp on the building blocks of Whitehall, as well as signal priorities to the electorate. Indeed, it is such an important tool that only one new Prime Minister since 1950 has chosen not to reconfigure departments in some way after assuming the leadership. Machinery of government change, however, can be a very blunt instrument. We researched department reconfigurations from 1979 to 2009 and found that whilst they may bring advantages, the majority of changes were insufficiently planned, announced at very short notice and always involved costs. This report aims to provide some insight into department changes of the past 30 years and we present some in-depth case studies of changes which were deemed to be especially successful by our interviewees. The recommendations we propose do not limit the Prime Minister’s ability to make well-prepared changes to the structure of Whitehall. Instead, our research seeks to help Whitehall minimise the costs of reconfigurations so when Prime Ministers do decide to build and dismantle Whitehall departments, they do so using a more considered and planned approach. I hope we have been able to provide some insight into the changes which Whitehall has experienced in the past 30 years and that we stimulate some debate over how changes could be more effectively managed in future. The overarching objective of the Institute is to inspire the best in government through considered analysis, learning and debate. I hope you find this report a worthy contribution to that mission.

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