Opinion

Evolving the Centre of Government: Three Key Insights

For centres of government to play a meaningful role in coordinating state responses to complex issues, they should be clear and purposeful about their impact on the public sector at large

Date Posted

31 Dec 2016

Issue

Issue 16, 14 Dec 2016

Governments are becoming more concerned with meeting contemporary challenges, which increasingly span organisational and sectoral boundaries. Public officers must grapple with complexity, ambiguity, and volatility in the face of greater time, resource and other pressures. Jocelyne Bourgon, former Clerk to the Privy Council of Canada, observes that, “with a rise in the cross-cutting and “wicked” challenges facing government in the post-industrial era, the Centre of Government is increasingly being called upon to provide coherence to government action”.1 As centres of government adapt to change, what are some important insights that can be drawn from best practices both in Singapore and around the world?

Centres of government generally perform similar functions. They facilitate collective action by building shared understanding on government-wide direction and arbitrating trade-offs where needed, prioritising and allocating resources so that ministry plans are aligned with government-wide priorities. They focus on medium to long-term planning and identify emerging issues. Centres also enhance the ability of government to perform by building capabilities: whether through incubating new functions, training, nurturing leaders, reorganising for greater efficiency, or monitoring delivery in key areas. Centres of government steward the Public Service as an institution, safeguarding its values.2

These similar functions not withstanding, centres of government in different countries are organised in ways that best fit their contexts. While the United Kingdom (UK) has two central agencies, others, like Canada and New Zealand, have three. Some countries merge the roles of the Cabinet Secretary and Head of Civil Service; others split them. Canada’s Treasury Board Secretariat and the duties of the State Services Commissioner in New Zealand are both entrenched in legislation. But in most cases, the structures and roles are dynamic. As centres of government evolve to be fit for purpose, there are three key insights that should be borne in mind.


As policy challenges become more complex and demands on government increase, it may be tempting for the government to take on more.

(I) THE CENTRE NEEDS TO BE CLEAR ABOUT ITS ROLE

First, centres of government must be strategic about the roles they perform. The centre needs to periodically review and re-prioritise to prevent bloat and internal incoherence. It needs to be clear about its purpose, and how it adds value to the work of government.

As policy challenges become more complex and demands on government increase, it may be tempting for the centre of government to take on more. Indeed, historically, centres of government have grown in tandem with the complexity and volume of challenges. In the UK, the demands of coordinating government during World War I led to the creation of the Cabinet Office in 1916. Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has been described as moving “from postbox to powerhouse”. Once a mere “clearinghouse” for the Prime Minister’s correspondence, it now serves a much more comprehensive and strategic role in government.3

In 2010, a UK House of Lords Select Committee observed that the British Cabinet Office had, in the past, housed a wide variety of units with different functions, and had therefore “tended to function less as an incubator and more as a dustbin”.4 A former Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office advised that to avoid this outcome, organisational changes needed to be “deeply considered and properly planned and timed”.5

The centre of government must especially have clarity in its role vis-à-vis line agencies. It should refrain from doing line agencies’ work for them, especially since they possess more expertise in the areas under their charge. Rather, central agencies should focus on where they can add value and enable line agencies to do their jobs more effectively. The centre can assist by removing barriers that inhibit agencies from working together, across silos. In considering how it can best add value, the centre of government should also be watchful about the compliance costs it imposes on agencies as it seeks to foster greater alignment throughout government.

Overall, the centre must facilitate and strengthen whole-of-government performance and ethos. Decentralisation efforts in the 1980s and 1990s led to gains in efficiency and flexibility for individual organisations, but hampered government’s ability to work across agencies to deal with complex challenges. From the late 1990s, there has been an increased emphasis on “the whole-of-government” or “joined-up government”. Countries are now using a variety of tools and platforms to help agencies to consider the government-wide implications of policies and plans. There is, however, a limit to the number of new entities that can be created to handle cross-cutting issues. Each new unit creates new demands on resources. The runway from sensing an emerging issue to conceiving a new organisation or platform, establishing it, and inducting new people can be unsustainably long. Moreover, governments run the risk of setting up new silos that they may subsequently have to be overcome.

As such, another way the centre can foster a whole-of-government mindset is by enhancing collective leadership. First, good central management of talent can balance between empowering public servants to forge their own careers and enabling them to gain a government-wide perspective of issues. This can be achieved by having leaders rotate between agencies and sectors, providing officers with opportunities for secondments, and ensuring that they work with each other on inter-agency projects. Second, senior leaders can regularly meet outside formal decision-making platforms to discuss issues or share perspectives. Deputy Ministers in Canada, for example, do this each week when they meet for Deputy Ministers’ Breakfast. Finally, senior leaders can be made accountable for both the performance of their own organisations and for system-wide outcomes. Canada’s Deputy Minister Committees look after either a policy that cuts across several domains or an issue that pertains to the stewardship of the public service. Similarly, New Zealand’s Chief Executives are accountable for the individual performance of their agencies as well as how their agencies contribute to system-wide outcomes.


The centre of government should refrain from doing line agencies' work for them. It should also be watchful about the compliance costs it imposes on agencies as it seeks to foster greater alignment throughout government.

(II) CENTRAL AGENCIES NEED TO WORK CLOSELY TOGETHER

The relationship between central agencies is frequently described as one of “creative tension”. The “tension” occurs because central agencies bring different but necessary perspectives to the table. This means that leaders at the centre may have to weigh, for example, a government’s ambitious agenda against concerns for fiscal prudence, or the drive for cost efficiencies in the present against building capabilities for the long-term. This tension is nevertheless “creative”, both because creativity is needed to reconcile different perspectives, and because reconciling these perspectives allows government to create value for citizens in an optimal, sustainable way. Diversity at the centre can help to improve the quality of decision-making.


Rather than performing their roles separately and sequentially, central agencies should collaborate, especially upstream, to ensure that initiatives are well-designed and delivered.

At the same time, central agencies must work together closely. Canada’s three central agencies have been described as functioning like a “three-legged stool”. A review of New Zealand’s State Services Commission said that New Zealand’s central agencies “must speak publicly with one voice and demonstrate strong and collective ownership and accountability for delivering better services”. The review also said that central agencies’ leadership had to be “joined at the hip”.6 Indeed, the centre’s ability to work well depends upon regular communication between its officers and leadership. Rather than performing their roles separately and sequentially, central agencies should collaborate, especially upstream, to ensure that initiatives are well-designed and delivered. Deliberate cross-deployment of officers between central agencies and regular meetings between senior leaders of central agencies can help to build centre of government expertise and relationships.


Diversity at the centre can help improve the quality of decision-making.

(III) THE CENTRE NEEDS TO BUILD CAPACITY FOR CHANGE

Volatile, uncertain, and complex times require that governments have a great capacity to absorb change. This capacity needs to be distributed throughout the system, and relies not only upon a strong centre of government, but also robust relationships between the centre and line agencies, and between leaders throughout government. Regular meetings can allow leaders to acquire and transmit between each other and down their organisations not just the broad strokes of needed shifts, but also important nuances and details that can ensure better alignment and nimbleness throughout a government that needs to change direction quickly.

One key means by which the centre can build capacity for change is by proactively and quickly adjusting structures of government to respond to emerging needs. This can allow the centre to rapidly incubate new functions or capabilities. For instance, centres of government around the world have used various structures to improve implementation as they grappled with the challenges of delivering better services. The UK created a Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in 2001 and a Major Projects Authority in 2010 – both have subsequently been reorganised. Australia created a Cabinet Implementation Unit in 2003. New Zealand strengthened its State Services Commission as it launched the Better Public Services reform from 2012 onwards, and Canada created a Central Innovation Hub and the position of Deputy Secretary for Results and Delivery in the Privy Council Office in 2015.7

Another way in which the centre can build capacity for change is by helping government to better anticipate and prepare for medium to long term change. Line agencies are predominantly focused on managing current or short-term issues. As such, they may lack the bandwidth to sense the weak signals of change, mitigate risks and prepare to seize opportunities. In this vein, centres can identify and build the capabilities that will allow government to not only be fit for purpose today, but also ready for the future.


Volatile, uncertain, and complex times require that governments have a great capacity to absorb change distributed throughout the system, not only a strong centre of government.

CONCLUSION: EVOLVING THE CENTRE IN SINGAPORE

July 2015 saw the creation of a new unit in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in Singapore. The Strategy Group (PMO-SG) was tasked with enabling government to identify its priorities and strengthen alignment across government so that it acts as one. Led by the Head of Civil Service, PMO-SG supports the government by identifying national priorities, managing issues that cut across multiple agencies or domains, incubating new functions and capabilities, and planning for the medium and long term. On 1 August 2016, the National Population and Talent Division and National Climate Change Secretariat also joined the Strategy Group.

PMO-SG joins Singapore’s polycentric network of agencies in the central administration sector. The centre of government includes the Ministry of Finance, the Public Service Division of the PMO, and the Ministry of Communications and Information and PMO’s Communications Group, which together oversee communications coordination and capability-building for the whole of government. The Ministry of Law oversees the legislative programme. The “centre of government” in Singapore operates in a context where there is already a strong whole-of-government ethos, and where inter-agency co-ordination is facilitated through platforms and processes. Singapore has benefitted from a political culture that enables the public service to carry out its role effectively, as well as from strong generalist and specialist public sector leaders.

Singapore starts from a position of strength as it builds more cohesion in government. The centre of government in Singapore will no doubt continue to evolve to ensure that it is fit for purpose, shaped by both historical and contemporary context. As central agencies work to ensure better cohesion in government, they will have to be mindful of the system’s need for nimble and decisive action.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Vernie Oliveiro is Senior Assistant Director (Policy Strategy) at the Research and Strategy Management Division, Ministry of National Development. This article was written when Vernie was Lead Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. The views expressed herein are her own.


NOTES

  1. Jocelyne Bourgon, “A Centre of Government Fit for the Time: Acting as One, Serving as One, Learning as One”, A New Synthesis of Public Administration Working Paper (Ottawa: Public Governance International, 2014), p. 1.
  2. For more information, see Jocelyne Bourgon, “A Centre of Government Fit for the Time: Acting as One, Serving as One, Learning as One”, A New Synthesis of Public Administration Working Paper (Ottawa: Public Governance International, 2014); and Josh Harris and Jill Rutter, Centre Forward: Effective Support for the Prime Minister at the Centre of Government (London: Institute for Government, 2014).
  3. Patrick Weller, Joanne Scott and Bronwyn Stevens, “From Postbox to Powerhouse: A Centenary History of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 1911-2010” (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011), Introduction.
  4. United Kingdom House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, “The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government: Report with Evidence”, 4th Session of 2009-2010 (January 2010), HL Paper 30, p. 51.
  5. Robin Mountfield, Memorandum to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, 1 July 2009, p. 71.
  6. New Zealand Government, Performance Improvement Framework Review of the State Services Commission (August 2013), p. 11.
  7. For more information on central government implementation units, see Jennifer Gold, International Delivery: Centres of Government and the Drive for Better Policy Implementation (Institute for Government, UK and Mowat Centre, Canada: 2014), p. 3.

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