05 November 2009 - 07 November 2009

Managing the machinery of government in periods of change

Chair: The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH

This conference on managing government transition after an election was timed to take advantage of the lessons learnt from the Bush-Obama handover and to help prepare for the spectrum of possibilities resulting from the UK General Election in 2010.  While many of the issues surrounding the effectiveness of incoming governments were familiar, and expectations of useful reform were low, there was a freshness and a relevance about this discussion which had a lot to do with the depth of expertise assembled at the table and with the strength of feeling that some changes were necessary. 

The make-up of the conference was biased towards the details of the UK system.  But the recent American experience proved both interesting and instructive;  and Canada lay halfway in between.  Our participants from France, Germany and Russia were obliged to flow with the Anglo-Saxon mainstream, but they added value to the debate with some wry observations.

There was no doubt in people’s minds that the effectiveness of government was becoming a serious issue in advanced democracies.  Political polarisation seemed to be intensifying in all the countries represented, perhaps most markedly in the United States;  and this did not serve the public interest in effective governance.  We were also concerned about a general  loss of respect for authority, both symbolised and aggravated by the sharpness of personal attacks on leading politicians.  There needed to be a new approach to professionalism in politics if our political institutions and practice were to rise above the personal level and the celebrity culture.  The conference attempted to establish what that would mean in practice. 

Participants thought there were a number of general issues which affected all our systems.  Few politicians had first-hand experience of government transitions involving a change of party.  At the same time transitions were hard to plan for.  To start preparing early on risked accusations of presumptuousness:  the inclination of candidates to avoid this amounted almost to a cultural block.  Participants thought it was time to break the media’s obsession with this aspect and to put effectiveness first.  Governments in power before an election were also sensitive about helping an opposition party to prepare, in case it gave them greater credibility. 

We felt that, perhaps to an increasing degree, electorates were not that interested in the health of their democratic institutions.  The media, giving their audiences what they wanted to hear, tended to generate more noise than relevant substance in this area.  Yet politicians found it hard to rise above the short-term orientation of the media, because they saw management of the media, partly justifiably, as a necessary element of governance.  This made it difficult, when parties were in campaigning mode, to regard the quality of policy as being more important than communication with the electorate.

Even though the conference got into discussion of some very useful detail, this theme – of the competing realities of campaigning and administration – pervaded the whole debate.  Overnight in the UK, though over a longer period in the US and elsewhere, transition teams had to move from the one reality to the other and were very hard to manage in that process.  It was therefore particularly important that the political leader concerned proved capable of managing both parts of the process with balance and good sense.  It was neither realistic nor, in most countries, constitutionally feasible for the civil service, with its responsibility for the delivery of effective governance, to be in charge of these aspects.  They were just too political.  That in turn was an argument for the best people to be attracted into politics, which would not happen if the procedures for moving into government at a senior level were so burdensome and threatening as to be a deterrent.

We looked in some detail at the Bush-Obama handover, which was regarded by our American participants as having been one of the best managed in recent history.  It had helped that neither the sitting President nor the Vice-President had been a candidate in the 2008 election, but President Bush was regarded as having made a distinctive contribution in his own approach to his succession.  His Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten, had prepared an enormous amount of useful material for the incoming team, covering both procedural and policy aspects.  The Obama campaign team themselves had begun to prepare early, for instance submitting before the election several hundred names for pre-clearing by the relevant agencies.  The McCain team were considered to have fallen some way behind this standard.  President Bush had also sought to counter another late-term phenomenon, that of the haemorrhaging of personnel from government office.  If this approach had been motivated by the thought of legacy, it had been at least partly effective. 

As for the timings involved in a change of US President, no-one thought it likely or necessary that the ten-week period between election and inauguration should shorten.  But there was widespread concern about the length of time it took to put the whole administration in place, because of the complexities of the confirmation system.  Many participants regarded it as no longer acceptable for the superpower in the twenty first century to take up to eighteen months to complete the process.  While the obstacles to reform were recognised, because of the insistence of Congress on strict scrutiny of the new Executive, suggestions were made about early prioritisation of key posts, moving forward the pre-checking procedures and ensuring that the incoming human resources team were fully staffed and focussed throughout the period.  Beyond that, there were some strong American calls for the whole system to be reviewed in the public interest, not least because of the vulnerability of the present system to crises and emergencies in an unpredictable world.  This perhaps was the area in the American system which could be most easily improved and which was potentially the most damaging if the unexpected struck. 

In looking at the quality of policy-making, participants could see that the more deliberate American timetable had advantages over immediate handovers in parliamentary systems.  The importance of recognising that there could only be one President at a time was underlined, though there was inevitably a loss of authority for the outgoing team.  An important point to consider was the inclination of political leaders to use their campaign team for administration.  The two skills were not the same;  and there were clear examples in past history of presidents undermining their own interests in office through loyalty to those who had helped them into office.  It was also sensible to remember that issues could look very different once the information available to a government was in the hands of the incoming team.  Early mistakes were often made through one or both these causes. 

When we turned to the UK system, participants were quick to ask the question whether an immediate handover on the morning after the election was sensible, when the incoming leader and team were always so exhausted.  Was it really necessary to have the Cabinet appointed within twenty-four hours and the whole government within a few days?  Common-sense suggested not, but in the end few participants militated for a change, both because the tradition was well ingrained in the British system and because the electorate expected to see the immediate effect of their voting. 

On the other hand, the conference accumulated a growing consensus that there was no need for the incoming government to announce its legislative programme, through the Queen’s Speech, within a fortnight or so of the election.  Manifestos might have made detailed proposals, but once in government there was always new information to hand;  and the civil service had an input which was not available beforehand.  No-one felt that public opinion would react adversely if the actual programme of legislation was delayed by a few weeks.  A statement of intentions could always be made earlier.  It was also proposed that the first Queen’s Speech after an election should address a multi-year programme of legislative intentions, not just one of twelve months ahead. 

Perhaps our most intensive discussion of the UK system revolved around ministerial preparation, staffing and the interaction between civil service and politicians.  There was a general feeling that, in a world of increasing complexity and interconnectedness, ministers were underprepared for their new responsibilities, both when entering a new government and when changing portfolios later.  We discussed at length whether the civil service could be involved more systematically in preparing an Opposition Front Bench in the run up to an election.  Several ideas were floated:  a unit in the Cabinet Office for contact with the Opposition;  small Opposition policy units in main departments;  a more formally established “Department of the Opposition”;  or dedicated think-tanks (Stiftungs) on the German model.  All these ideas had value up to a point, but in the end everyone appeared to accept the argument that the civil service’s main responsibility was to serve the government of the day.  Not only would units dedicated to the Opposition cause considerable problems of management, they would also increase the tendency towards politicisation of the civil service which was already taking place through the appointment of Special Advisers and other outsiders. 

Participants nevertheless felt that there were a number of sensible adjustments that could be made.  Shadow Ministers should normally, when the government changed, take on the same portfolio.  Ministers should stay longer in the same job.  Civil servants should be given a little more scope for contacts with the Opposition, including on matters of policy.  And guidelines on the procedures to be followed, particularly for civil service involvement within the Opposition, should be made more explicit.  Most participants felt that the current confused and disparate set of practices could be improved considerably through sensible consultation and codification led by the Cabinet Office .

There was general concern, and not in respect of the UK system alone, about the relatively small catchment area for the appointment of ministers as the demand grew for greater professionalism in administering a modern government’s business.  Most participants thought it a good idea to bring in occasional outsiders, as in a “Government of all the talents” (GOATS).  This was an area still in its infancy, but it might be very relevant to a situation after the next UK General Election, when there was expected to be a very large turnover in the House of Commons.  The role of outsiders in government might also become connected to parliamentary reform in both Houses.  The underlying theme returned here of popular expectations of effective government.  It sometimes seemed that the public cared relatively little about the effectiveness of Parliament or the quality of Ministers.  But efficient governance was a prerequisite of a healthy society and there was a great deal to be gained from measures improving the quality of ministerial performance and the interaction of politicians and the civil service.  Some participants wanted to see more effective parliamentary scrutiny of the structures and procedures in these areas, which could be taken forward after the election.  But there was general agreement on the UK side that confirmation hearings should be strictly avoided.   

This search for improvement could also be applied to the quality of policy-making, particularly in the early stages of a new government.  Here again the nature of the relationship between an incoming government and the permanent civil service was a factor.  In adjusting their focus to new ministers, civil servants tended to be shy of criticising new policy proposals, even when they saw them as deficient.  It ought to become the norm that an opposition party, in preparing for the possibility of government, liaised with the civil service on the workability of policy proposals.  If a Cabinet Office Unit for this purpose was thought unwise, perhaps retired civil servants could be attached to opposition policy teams.  The spectrum of options in this area was regarded by the company as certainly worth further study.  If necessary, party funding arrangements could be amended to make the financing of policy research teams, including civil service expertise, more easily arranged.

Finally, as regards the UK scene, we had a healthy discussion about the procedures that might have to be followed if the election produced a hung parliament.  There was no modern precedent for a situation of great uncertainty as to which political leader might be invited to form a government.  Moreover the provisions of the “Caretakers Convention”, which covered the arrangements for government in the meantime, were not widely known.  Participants regarded it as extremely important to avoid a situation where a government might appear delegitimized, or the sovereign put in an impossible position, by a failure to draw up sensible arrangements in advance.  There were precedents mentioned, particularly from New Zealand, which might have relevance.  It was firmly suggested that unwritten rules or gentlemen’s understandings were no longer adequate in the modern world.  The current expenses scandal in parliament was an indication of that.  We also heard an interesting input from recent Canadian experience, where the dual role of the Prime Minister as political leader and constitutional adviser had been seen as awkward.  Participants felt that there would be a willingness on all sides to take a very careful approach to this eventuality.

Out of this intriguing and constructive debate, there were a number of general issues to which participants clearly gave priority:

·         The difficulties of governing in the modern world made it increasingly important for the arrangements of government, particularly in the early stages of a new government, to be as effective as possible.  Public interest and the reputation of politics both militated for greater efficiency and predictability.

·         In an area where accountability was hard to place, it was felt that political leaders themselves had to take responsibility for preparing for effective government, even if there were currently some presentational downsides in being seen to do so.

·         More consideration should be given to the possibility of emergencies at the start of a new government’s life, especially in the security field.  Exercises on emergencies might be devised in which the appropriate opposition spokesmen could be included. 

·         All the procedures and eventualities covered in this discussion deserved better codification or guidelines. 

·         National strategic requirements were becoming lost in the confusion of short-term, party-oriented, media-driven imperatives.  There should be a cross-party incentive to give strategic priorities a greater weight.

As far as the United States was concerned, there were few specific proposals for improvements in procedures or approaches.  But there was a clear wish in the company to see the confirmation process refined and shortened.  It took too long and reached down to too low a level in the executive.  The intensity of examination of an individual’s past was also becoming counterproductive, in requiring people never to have made a mistake.  Too many people were being turned off politics as a result.

As for the UK system, our search for improvements focussed primarily on two main areas:  the rules of engagement with the opposition before an election;  and the maintenance of good procedures in unexpected circumstances.  The following were the priorities: 

·         New guidelines needed to be written for civil service contact with the opposition before an election, with greater scope allowed for the discussion of good-quality policy making.  Retired civil servants might conceivably be given a more systematic role.

·         Ministers or prospective ministers should be offered more systematic opportunities for professional development.  Some excellent academic work was being done in this area;  and the new Institute for Government was starting to make a real contribution.  The Cabinet Office should take an initiative in this area.

·         Arrangements for financing policy research and professional training for opposition parties should be considered, perhaps as part of a political party funding review.  Preparations for crises and emergencies should include training for specific opposition politicians, certainly ahead of an election but perhaps more generally.

·         Parliament should be given greater scope to scrutinise the structures and procedures for government transitions, perhaps starting with an exercise on lessons learnt after the experience of the next election.

·         All predictable eventualities surrounding a hung parliament should be studied with some urgency, with clear guidelines written for the principal players, to the extent possible.

This conference was not  just a useful exercise in examining practicalities and potential improvements in the area of transitions, but also a fascinating insight into the challenges for democracy in the modern era.  The wealth of senior experience around the table had a great deal to do with this, as did the constructive interaction between different systems.  We were immensely fortunate to have a Chairman who had both travelled these roads himself and given the substance a great deal of thought.  His steer on the core issues gave the debate real momentum.  We now wait to see how these ideas can be put to the test.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH
Joint President, Chatham House (2009-).  Formerly:  Chairman of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation (2000-09);  Member of Parliament (Conservative), Huntingdon (1979-2001);  Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury (1990-97);  Chancellor of the Exchequer (1989-90);  Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (1989);  Chief Secretary to HM Treasury (1987-89);  Minister of State for Social Security, Department of Health and Social security (1986-87);  Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, DHSS (1985-86);  Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury (senior Government Whip) (1984-85);  Assistant Government Whip (198384);  Parliamentary Private Secretary to Minister of State, Home Office (1981-83).  Current Business Appointments:  Senior Adviser to Credit Suisse;  Chairman, European Advisory Board, Emerson Electric Company;  Chairman, International Advisory Board, National Bank of Kuwait;  Chairman, Advisory Board, Global Infrastructure Partners.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Professor Peter Aucoin CM FRSC

Professor, Department of Political Science, Dalhousie University;  Senior Fellow, Canada School of Public Service, Government of Canada;  Member, Board of Directors, Institute for Research on Public Policy.  A Member of the Program Advisory Committee, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Mr James Lahey
Visiting Research Professor and Director, Centre on Public Management and Policy, University of Ottawa (2009-).  Formerly:  Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet (Public Service Renewal), Privy Council Office (2007 09).
Mr Joseph Wild
Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Machinery of Government, Government of Canada (2009-).  Formerly:  Executive Director, Strategy Policy, Treasury Board Secretariat (2006-09).
Dr David Zussman
Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management, School of Management, University of Ottawa (2005-);  Commissioner, Public Service of Canada (2004-).  A Member of the Program Advisory Committee, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Christophe-Alexandre Paillard

Technical Adviser (energy, climate, environment, transport, space, patent rights, justice and home affairs), Cabinet of the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, Paris (2009-).

Dr Manuela Glaab

Visiting Professor, Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt;  Director, Research Group on German Affairs, Center for Applied Policy Research, University of Munich (2000-).

Professor Dr Oxana Dmitrieva

Deputy for St Petersburg and Member, Committee for Budget and Taxes, State Duma, Russian Federation;  Professor, St Petersburg University of Economics and Finance.

Lord Aldington

Senior Advisor, Deutsche Bank London (2009-);  Member, Chairman’s Committee, London Investment Banking Association (2003-);  Deputy Chairman, Royal academy Trust (2003-);  Member, Oxford University’s Court of Benefactors (1990-).
Mr Alex Allan
Chairman, Joint Intelligence Committee, The Cabinet Office.  Formerly:  Permanent Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Sir Michael Bichard
Executive Director, Institute for Government, London (2008-).  Formerly:  Rector, The London Institute;  Chair, Legal Services Commission (2005-08); Permanent Secretary, Department for Education and Employment (1995-2001).
Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE FBA
Professor of Politics and Government and Fellow, Brasenose College, University of Oxford;  Professor of Law, Gresham College;  Honorary Fellow, Society for Advanced Legal Studies.
The Rt Hon Baroness Bottomley
Life Peeress (2005-);  Chancellor, University of Hull (2006-);  Pro Chancellor, University of Surrey (2005-);  A Governor, London School of Economics;  Chair, Board Practice, Odgers Berndtson (2000-);  Trustee, The economist Newspaper.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Rt Hon Lord Butler KG GCB CVO
Life Peer (1998-).  Formerly:  Master, University College, Oxford (1998-2008); Chairman, Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004);  Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service (1988-98).  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Suma Chakrabarti KCB
Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice (2007-).
Lord Falconer QC
Life Peer, Labour (1997-);  Senior Counsel, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.  Formerly:  Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (2003-07).
Mr Daniel Finkelstein
The Times (2001-);  Chief Leader Writer (2008-).  Formerly:  Director, Conservative Research Department for Prime Minister John Major then Conservative leader William Hague.
The Rt Hon Christopher Geidt CVO OBE
Royal Household (2002-);  Private Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen (2007-).
Mr Dominic Grieve MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Beaconsfield (1997-);  Shadow Secretary of State for Justice (2009-).  Formerly:  Shadow Home Secretary (2008-09);  Shadow Attorney General (2003-08).
Dr Catherine Haddon
Fellow, Institute for Government, London.
Professor Robert Hazell CBE
Founder (1995) and Director, The Constitution Unit, School of Public Policy, University College London.  Formerly:  Director, Nuffield Foundation (1989-95);  Senior Civil Servant, Home Office (1975-89).
Professor Peter Hennessy FBA
Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary College, University of London (1992-);  Fellow of the British Academy.  Author and Broadcaster.  A Governor and Member of the Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr David Howarth MP
Member of Parliament (Liberal Democrat) for Cambridge (2005-);  Shadow Secretary of State for Justice (2009-);  Shadow Solicitor General (2007-). 
The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Horsham (1997-);  Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (2007-).
Mr Rajay Naik
Non-Executive Director, Big Lottery Fund (2009-);  Commissioner, Standing Commission on Carers  (2009-);  Governor, City College (2006-);  Trustee, Changemakers (2006-).
Baroness Neville-Jones
Shadow Minister for Security and National Security Adviser to the Leader of the Opposition (2007-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Information Assurance Advisory Council (2005-07);  Chairman, QinetiQ (2000-05).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Janet Paraskeva
First Civil Service Commissioner, Office of Civil Service Commissioners, London
(2006-);  Chair, Chile Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (2007-);  Non-Executive Director, Serious Organised Crime Agency (2005-);  Chair, Olympic Lottery Distributor (2006-).
Dr David Richards
Reader, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield;  Special Adviser to the House of Lords Inquiry into the Cabinet Office and the Role of Central Government.  Author.
Mr Peter Riddell
Assistant Editor, Politics, The Times (1993-);  Senior Fellow, Institute for Government, London (2009);  Chairman, Hansard Society.  Broadcaster.  Author.
Ms Antonia Romeo
Director, Whitehall Liaison Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2009-).  Formerly:  Principal Private Secretary to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (previously Constitutional Affairs) (2006-08).
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Director, Policy Foresight Programme, James Martin 21st Century School, University of Oxford (2006-). Formerly:  Chancellor, University of Kent (1996-2006); Chairman, Climate Institute of Washington DC (1990-2002).  Author.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Diana Walford CBE MD FRCPath FRCP FFPH
Principal, Mansfield College, Oxford (2002);  Member, Board of Medical Sciences Division, Oxford University (2003-);  Member, Court of Governors, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (2005-);  Trustee, Sue Ryder Care (2008-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Michael Chertoff

Senior of Counsel, Covington & Burling LLP, Washington DC (2009-);  Founder and Chairman, The Chertoff Group (2009-).  Formerly:  Secretary of Homeland Security (2005-09).
Mr Stephen Hess
Senior Fellow Emeritus, The Brookings Institution.  Author.
Mr Al Kamen
Columnist, The Washington Post (1992-).  Formerly:  reporting assignments including local and Federal courts, the Supreme Court and the State Department.
Professor Martha Kumar
Professor, Department of Political Science, Towson University, Maryland;  Director, White House Transition Project (1998-).
Ms Jami Miscik
President and Vice-Chairman, Kissinger Associates (2009-).  Formerly:  Global Head of Sovereign Risk, Lehman Brothers (2005-08);  Deputy Director for Intelligence, CIA (2002-05).  Board of Directors:  The American Ditchley Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations, In-Q-Tel.
Dr Norman J Ornstein
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute (AEI);  Co-Director, AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project (2005-);  Senior Counselor, Continuity of Government Commission (2002-);  Member, Board of Contributors, USA Today (1997-);  Founder and Director, Campaign Finance Reform Working Group  (1996-).  A Member of the Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation.