Speech on reforming Defra for the Institute for Government

The Environment Secretary's speech at the Institute for Government on reforming Defra.

Thank you very much. It is hard to believe that the Institute for Government (IfG) has been around for just eight years.

In that time, there is scarcely a corner of Whitehall it hasn’t shone a light into. It is a rare combination of a think tank, a classroom and a critical friend.

And I don’t think I would be standing here if I agreed with the blogger Guido Fawkes, who described the Institute as the “most serious threat to freedom in Britain since the Communist Party”.

It’s an exciting time for us to be talking about reform in government.

Why this matters

I’m someone who has always cared about this issue but I think that more of us should care. It matters far beyond the world of Whitehall-watching, because it is critical to our mission to build Britain’s economy and society in this turnaround decade.

I believe that the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ are inevitably linked to the ‘how’. If we want Britain to lead the world, our governance needs to lead the world too. It needs to enable talent and enterprise, to do less - and where it acts to be more productive and more open to ideas.

Global changes

As the introduction said, I worked at Shell and Cable & Wireless in the 1990s and 2000s and I saw the changes that technology bought, from the carefully drafted memo right through to the slapdash blackberry message. The arrival of the internet did not just mean automating what we already did. It meant companies making huge efficiency savings and the whole culture of organisations changing. Layers of management were stripped out and we had to be more nimble and responsive.

We face ever-fiercer global competition and shifting patterns of climate, trade and economic power. To meet these challenges, our productivity must match and exceed the level of the best-performing nations.

The government’s supply side reforms to taxes, welfare and education are all vital to closing the gap.

We are also getting out of the way and allowing enterprise to thrive – since 2010, five private sector jobs have been created for every job lost in the public sector.

And we must improve our own productivity and make sure that our actions drive competitiveness. This means breaking up monopolies, opening up competition for the supply of public goods and minimising the burdens of regulation.

Changing government

Making government work better is something we’ve been grappling with for generations. The Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 1850s were about meritocracy and efficiency in Whitehall.

Government departments coordinated by the Cabinet Office were the product of the First World War and David Lloyd George, with the Hankey and Haldane reforms which he started.

The post-war growth of government led to massive delivery departments. The Fulton Committee in 1968 called for much greater separation of services and policy - the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ - and for openness to outside experts.

This led to the creation of Next Steps agencies starting in the 1980s. We saw real improvements as a result of this, but the creation of so many arm’s-length organisations also brought duplication, friction and extra costs.

Since 2010, we have been reshaping this landscape by sharing more expertise across government – like the Government Digital Service. In the case of Defra, we have seen the number of organisations reduced from more than 90 in 2010 to today’s 34.

I want Defra to be leading the way in the next phase of change and I believe the four key principles are about government being more integrated, more open, more modern and more local.


The technology revolution means that people today expect responsiveness and seamlessness, they want services shaped around their needs not around organisational convenience. The days of traditional government departments saying “take it or leave it” are over.

Defra touches the lives of every individual and every business in the country. And our starting point has to be the people who deal with us and the landscapes we are trying to enhance, not our organogram.

We will structure our work around river catchments and landscapes that make up the environment. For the first time, we will have a plan and budget for each area rather than 34 organisations operating with different plans. We are going to be integrating these plans with the 25-year framework we are creating for the environment, which we are going to be launching this spring. When community groups, NGOs, farmers and businesses talk to us, they won’t be passed from pillar to post.

The important legal independence and regulatory role of Natural England and the Environment Agency will be maintained whilst more flexible operations will mean the same spending delivering results several times over. We will share the same IT, HR and communications, releasing resources for the front line.

A new Environment Analysis Unit will pull together data, stats and economics from across our organisation meaning that flood alleviation, flora and fauna, farming, water soil and air will be considered together; not as isolated issues.

The idea of integration goes beyond the Defra border. The same principle applies across government and into the business and voluntary world. We are turbocharging our food exports and inward investment by establishing the Great British Food Unit - where companies from Halen Mon Sea Salt to Weetabix have a platform for their products.

By bringing together UKTI, Defra and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which is funded by farmers - we have created a UK and international network with 40 staff in London, 5 in China and other locations around Britain and the world.


Free and open debate is one of our great advantages as a nation.

I’m not sure that government and policy wonks ever had a monopoly on good ideas – but we certainly don’t now and modern technology makes it easier than ever for us to access the most creative minds.

Matt Hancock is leading the changes to the civil service, like requiring all senior appointments to be advertised outside Whitehall.

This draws on previous experience as Lord Wilson, the former Cabinet Secretary, has said: “Nearly 30 per cent of Permanent Secretaries appointed between 1900 and 1919 had begun life in another profession. Their average age was under 40. It was not unknown for former MPs and Junior Ministers to become Permanent Secretaries.” Now there’s a threat!

The Extended Ministerial Office (EMO) is a much discussed idea, some might think it’s a goth punk movement, but it isn’t as I’m sure everyone in this room knows, it’s an innovation introduced by Francis Maude. I’m a huge fan of the EMO, because I think it complements the superb expertise we already have in Defra and helps us do more and reach more people.

We have Ellen Broad from the Open Data Institute driving forward reform with our Head of Data Alex Coley.

We’ve got Fiona Gately, who has worked for Duchy Originals and school food campaigns in Britain and America. She is promoting British food and drink with our Food Director, Sarah Church.

We’ve got the economist Adam Memon and government reform specialist Kanishka Narayan bringing new ideas to the department. And we’ve got other outside experts including Ian Hall, a financial services specialist.

I am pushing Defra to welcome good ideas wherever they come from, creating a flourishing greenhouse of creativity. This means consulting as widely as possible and “showing our workings” in public. For the environment framework for example, we are going to be launching the framework in spring, with the final results through at the end of this year, and we are using a platform called Dialogue to enable contributors to have their say.

Open to people

I think we have a huge resource to tap. The British people have an unparalleled love and pride for nature and landscapes. Millions join groups like the RSPB and the National Trust - and farmers and volunteers are working to improve the countryside, like the ones I met last month who have brought the harvest mouse back to Selborne in Hampshire.

But there are too many people in our country who are not aware of these natural wonders, how food is produced or benefiting from the experience of climbing Catbells in the Lake District or visiting the National Arboretum in Gloucestershire.

As well as opening our policy making for new ideas - I want to open our environment to new people.

This means National Parks, Kew, the Forestry Commission attracting more visitors, especially children from all backgrounds and parts of the country. It means making training, volunteering and apprenticeships in countryside management, farming and the environment more widely available.

These are huge public assets and we should ensure they are benefiting the public as a whole as widely as possible.


I’m pleased to say that Defra is at the forefront of the open data revolution. By June, we will be on target to release 8,000 datasets as I promised last summer.

I think it’s an immense achievement of our department that one third of all of the government’s open data will be Defra’s – we don’t have one third of the government budget, but we’ve got one third of all the data out there.

This is a major resource that entrepreneurs already use to design new tools, from websites for people to check their local river levels to software for the latest precision farming techniques.

Our data is driving exciting advances in mapping. Architects are using our Lidar data, a 3D map of the country built up with airborne laser readings, to build a model of London as they plan the next skyscraper. Game developers are using it to build new landscapes for Minecraft and archaeologists are discovering lost networks of Roman roads from Lancashire to Dorset.

As a department, we are increasing our capital investment by 12 percent over the course of this parliament. This means that as well as increasing our spending on flood defences, we can raise our investment in IT, science and facilities by 30%. This new technology will help us to assess risk more precisely and to automate more monitoring and inspection, enabling us to reduce our running costs by 15 percent.

That means we can do things like introduce a single helpline for farmers and streamline the way people apply for environmental permits and track animal movements. Our Single Farm Inspection Taskforce, which we promised in our manifesto, will cut tens of thousands of official visits – without sacrificing standards. This all reduces the time and money people will have to spend dealing with us so that by 2020 we will have swept away £470m worth of unnecessary costs for businesses.


The world is more educated than it has ever been before. People have better information for making decisions at the touch of a screen. Government should move from making decisions on people’s behalf to ensuring they have the information, tools and structures to act.

At the most basic level this means individuals being given greater information, tools and capability to contribute to their local environment, for example, providing habitats for bees in their gardens. It also means communities having the wherewithal to make local decisions. In the “Slow the Flow” project in Pickering, the community are using the landscape to provide flood protection and environmental benefits.

I think it’s important to note though that empowering individuals and communities requires Defra staff on the ground to be able to take genuine decisions and resolve issues rather than passing them up the line. During the flooding in the North of England – Environment Agency staff were communicating directly with communities online and through broadcast at a level never seen before. I want to see more people in our organisation having that ownership and fulfilment and to be able to get things done locally.

The tools being designed by the Environment Analysis Unit and the Natural Capital Committee, under the leadership of Dieter Helm will give a consistent framework for people to take decisions nationally and locally. For example, natural capital accounting will help calculate where woodland planting would provide the greatest benefits for plants and animals, recreation and reduced flood risk alongside the economic gains for forestry and farming. We’ll be starting three pathfinder projects later this year—one on the coast, one in an urban setting and one in a large rural landscape.

The governance reforms through the 25 year plan for the environment will also make it easier for us to bring in talents and finances from other organisations. People could use Environmental Impact Bonds, for example, to raise money to plant trees based on the value they provide in the future.


In the 1980s, government took on and broke up entrenched monopolies in public utilities and the City of London, releasing the pent-up energy of the economy.

Today, [we are] doing the same for how we are governed. We are harnessing new ideas and technology with an open approach to policy and decision-making. We are devolving power and responsibility to the both people inside and outside government who can bring the best solutions.

Just as our economy was turned around in the 1980s, in this turnaround decade we are creating a state that is more responsive to people and place and the realities of a more integrated and open world.

Together we can create the smarter, leaner state that will deliver the results for Britain.

Thank you.