“Partly personality, partly ideology, and partly everybody defending their turf.”

December 6, 2021

For the November edition of The Loop, we spoke to Sir Vince Cable, former leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2017 to 2019, and former Business Secretary in the UK’s Coalition Government of 2010 to 2015. He argues that money in particular was crucial to interdepartmental disagreements, and that a strong presence at the heart of government would be a key factor in encouraging wider collaboration.

During your time in government, what challenges did you experience in terms of cross-departmental collaboration?

In that particular period, marked most notably by the coalition government, there were two things.

One of these was the different parties of coalition, although I had good relations with both Conservative and Liberal Democrat heads of department, so it wasn’t that overwhelming.

The biggest problem was money and disagreements over its distribution.

A good example where these disagreements caused major damage was regional development agencies (RDAs) and regional policies. The position when I went into government was that about 40 per cent of the funding of RDAs came from the Business Department and 60 per cent came from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLoG).

Eric Pickles (the then-head of DCLoG) decided, partly because he wanted the money spent somewhere else, partly as he didn’t like RDAs, to stop his contribution entirely.

So, RDAs were totally demolished. Some of them probably needed to go, some of them needed reform, and some of them were okay. But reform was not something we could do without proper interdepartmental cooperation and that didn’t exist.

The whole infrastructure around the regions, which this government is now having to re-establish, just disappeared. And it came from some squabble over money.

Were those disagreements over money ideological, or do you think it was just personality and ego that contributed to them?

It was partly personality, partly ideology, and partly everybody defending their turf. Another area where relations were poor was with the Home Office over immigration, particularly relating to overseas students.

The Home Office had decided (wrongly, in hindsight) that there was large net immigration of overseas students who were staying behind and adding to immigration numbers. Therefore, the Home Office went to great lengths to hinder overseas students coming to the UK. But from our point of view in the Business department this was crucial income for British universities and colleges.

The Chinese government were very annoyed, and the Indians were even more annoyed, so it became an international issue too, and other government departments piled in. We had coalitions of departments aligned to us and others against us.

Politically it was understandable, but ultimately they set an objective which pitted one department on a collision course with others. That was naturally an argument about money, but that was a good example of interdepartmental strife.

What systems were put in place to try to overcome these silos?

Great effort was made by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to try to eliminate these problems. They did work hard on it. They had a process for resolving disputes between departments, as well as between the parties. And Cameron’s style, which was fairly laid back but also quite collegiate, was quite good. It was understood that there was a problem and attempts were made to mitigate it.

One thing that was formalised was the so-called quad. Where there were two Liberal Democrats and two Tories to arbitrate on disputes, but that was between parties.

If there was a dispute between, for example, the Energy Department under Chris Huhne and the Treasury, they would try to sort the problem out at that level. But that was primarily on the assumption that the main disagreements were between parties rather than between departments.

In terms of interdepartmental staff, the way that this was formally resolved went through cabinet committees, as this is the system that is supposed to deal with interdepartmental arguments.

Do you believe that a silo mentality continues to hinder modern public policy issues, such as the goal of net zero or Brexit?

I think to a degree, yes. Different interests by different ministries will cut across overall government objectives and that’s bound to be the case.

However, there are mitigating factors, such as if you have a very strong lead from the centre. For example, the Treasury is very powerful, and it has an integrating role because it can impose its will on everybody. A strong prime minister would have the same effect. And there are kind of integrating factors, such as the fact that staff to some extent move. If you are a permanent secretary and you want promotion, you want promotion to another government department, so you’re not going to spoil your chances of moving by making an enemy of other government departments.

Were you to be managing those same teams today, would technology that provided the means of feedback and cross-team communication be effective at bridging the gaps between silos?

I don’t think this is a technology problem, actually. It’s fairly straightforward to copy in people in other departments as well as in your own department on email circulars. I mean, the technology already exists.

I think the problems are often personal and it’s a need for face-to-face contacts, regular meetings. I mean, that’s actually what provides the personal glue which makes things happen. So, looking for technological solutions isn’t the way I would approach it.

What else would you do to help break down these silos and improve collaboration?

That’s a tricky one. I suppose the first and obvious point is more interdepartmental mobility. If people see their career structures as civil servants, as part of the civil service rather than in one particular department they’re more likely to have a cohesive worldview, aren’t they?

I think a second would be effective coordinating operation through Number 10. Because at the moment the big department that sits astride Whitehall is the Treasury, which is sometimes a quite maligned influence.

But if you have an effective Prime Minister and an effective system of coordination in Number 10, that I think is probably the real factor it operates. And they will make sure that the cabinet committees work properly, that they’re taken seriously. So I think those are probably the two things I would emphasise.