The Strategy Unit, the prime minister’s long term think tank, is facing the chop.
Renaming or restructuring your strategy team is an important rite of passage for most prime ministers, so this should come as little surprise to Whitehall veterans.
But it does give an insight into some of the teething problems the policy wonks have faced in Downing Street, not least given the extra pressures of working in a coalition.
The plans are not quite finalised. But it looks like the Strategy Unit — which is staffed by a few dozen civil servants — will broadly be split in two.
Some staff will join Steve Hilton and Polly Mackenzie in the Policy Unit, which is mainly staffed by special advisers in Downing Street. The remainder will be joining Nick Clegg’s small but growing cadre of wonks. The Office of Civil Society, meanwhile, is to be beefed up to become The Big Office of Civil Society*. Gareth Davies, the current head of the strategy unit, will be its new director general.
Shifting policy specialists from a Strategy Unit to a Policy Unit will only set pulses racing of the most devoted Whitehall-ogist. But there is a genuine point to be made. These two teams were set up to do very different things.
New Labour wanted the Strategy Unit, staffed by civil servants, to instil a culture of long-term evidence based policymaking in Whitehall. Given the heavy day-to-day firefighting in government, Geoff Mulgan and others wanted to make sure that somebody, somewhere had a strategic overview of policy.
Already under Cameron, the line between long term policy and the more special adviser driven Policy Unit has been fudged. That may be a good thing. There is no point in writing papers about flood defences in 2035 unless they are relevant to today’s policy agenda. But it does risk the limited number of staff being consumed by the daily news cycle.
The other issue is the Clegg office. The addition of some more policy specialists will be welcome relief for his hard-pressed team. The sheer range of issues he has to handle has left them struggling to cope at times. Clegg’s office was in danger or being branded a Whitehall black hole, from which policy submissions never re-emerge. But, welcome as this is, it may well be the start of more policymaking duplication as the coalition move towards the election.
* TBOCS is what I hope they call the new office, just so it doesn’t get confused with TOCS, which are of course Train Operating Companies.