The map, and the territory, of the state sector

Insights Newsletter
12 May, 2023

The classic British TV series Yes, Minister put the problem well. Any incoming Minister faces a nearly impossible task not only in getting their head around the policy issues in their area, which can be formidable, but also in getting to grips with the machinery of state.  

Sir Humphrey, the official who knows the state far better than his Minister, always has an advantage. 

The machinery of state is complex. Even trying to map it is no small task. By the normal classifications there are more than 3,000 government organisations, two thirds of which are school boards. 

No one in central government is quite sure exactly how many of the rest there are. 

They have a cosmically confusing jargon of ICEs, ACEs, Public Service and Non-Public Service, departments, agencies, Commissions, Boards and entities.  

And there are finer distinctions. “Statutory Crown entities - Crown agent” and “Statutory Crown entities - independent Crown entity” are different beasts. And while some officials, after decades of bureau experience will know the differences and why they matter, pity the incoming new Member of Parliament trying to keep it all straight. 

A map of the entities on its own would not do much good. The map of the state sector is not the territory.  

Focusing on what government does, rather than on what Ministers wish would happen, is a useful way to get beyond the euphemisms of government language. 

The health system is an aspiration. What really happens is spending on treating illness.  

The education system is an aspiration. What really happens is teaching and certification. 

It is also useful to have a sense of scale.  

The nucleus of government, Parliament and its services, consist of six organisations that together account for a mere fifth of one percent of total central government spending.  

Ministries and their operational entities mostly spend money, treat illness, teach and certify, make and enforce rules, and deal with overseas. 

In a forthcoming Policy Point we will map the State Sector and describe the territory in more detail. It is a first step to a longer report on alternative approaches.  

Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, new Members of Parliament will need to understand both the map and the territory.  

We hope the work will help those Members in dealing with the Sir Humphreys they find when they come to office. 

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