OPINION - Andy Burnham: Tinkering with names isn’t enough, Whitehall must devolve power

Andy Burnham, Manchester Mayor.  (Amanda Searle)
Andy Burnham, Manchester Mayor. (Amanda Searle)

I have been in politics long enough to know one thing for certain: no votes were ever won by changing the names of Whitehall departments. So why do governments constantly do it?

The only plausible answer is because they think that, alongside new faces in a reshuffle, it’s an easy way of conveying a fresh sense of government focus and direction to the wider world.

I hate to break it to them but it doesn’t work. It never did. If anything, it just creates even more confusion as to who is in charge of what.

Inside the Westminster bubble, the rearranging of departmental furniture might create a mild sense of excitement. Outside in the real world, people simply roll their eyes at the tedium of having to get used to a whole new set of Whitehall acronyms.

No sooner had we got used to pronouncing the names of DLUHC (“De-Luck”) and BEIS (“Bayz”) than one of them has already been abolished. These days, the names of government departments are lasting only slightly longer than ministers.

Worse, departmental names are increasingly based on aspirations, rather than simply listing areas of policy competence, and are starting to take on the feel of soundbites.

So, to add to the Department of Levelling Up, we now have the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero. Given that many people would say the Government is delivering neither of these things, is this the first Whitehall department that might be at serious risk from the Trade Descriptions Act?

At the very least, I think we can all agree that these new names doth protest a little too much and reveal an increasing sense of Whitehall self-doubt. It feels like it is trying to convince us — and itself — that it can still make societal change without fully believing it or knowing how to do it anymore.

This takes us to the heart of the matter.

England is one of the few countries in the world still trying to run itself from one postcode. It was never a particularly sensible idea but, in simpler times, we somehow managed to make it work. Now, in a more complex world, the shortcomings of our overly-centralised system of government are being embarrassingly exposed — and no amount of tinkering with the nomenclature of government departments can hide that.

The simple truth is this: levelling up and net zero will stall if we try to impose them from the top down. Big challenges like this can only be solved from the bottom up. Clever countries around the world realise this and are empowering their cities to lead the charge. But English cities are still being held back by a sclerotic political landscape. For instance, in a critically important area like technical education, city-regions like Greater London and Greater Manchester need more ability to make sure that the skills needs of their fast-changing economies are met by the local skills system. This can’t be organised from the Department for Education.

To be fair, an increasing number of people in the two main political parties and the civil service realise this. Calls for Whitehall reform are increasing and it is genuinely encouraging to see levels of support for devolution rising among civil servants. We hear that Numbers 10 and 11 are more and more persuaded of the case and the Department for Levelling Up, its Secretary of State and ministers deserve great credit for making it so effectively.

And yet, some are still digging in. Right now, there is something of a Whitehall tug of war going on between those who know change is needed and those who want to keep hold of the levers of power. We will soon find out who is winning.

Greater Manchester and the West Midlands have been holding constructive “Trailblazer” talks with government departments over deepening devolved powers matched by increased accountability to the public and Parliament. But we are now reaching the moment of truth.

Whitehall likes to talk tough about reforming other services and sectors but it has not been so good at reforming itself beyond cosmetic changes of the kind we have seen this week.

If we can agree a reasonable devolution deal with a range of government departments, it would reflect well on a Whitehall system that is self-aware enough to know that new times now demand new ways of working. Sharing power with people closer to the ground would mean faster delivery of government ambitions on levelling up, energy security and net zero — and that will only help give credibility to those new Whitehall names.