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Renewing DEFRA

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defra seems to have been in a state of flux ever since it was formed out of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions during the height of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001. Having initially sought to identify itself as ‘the department that deals with the essentials of life’ it has, over the past 12 months, adopted ‘one-planet living’ as its driving theme. The process of change, however, does not stop there. The department has recently embarked on an ambitious ‘Renew defra’ programme, the purpose of which, according to its permanent secretary, Mrs Helen Ghosh, is to deliver ‘a more flexible, collaborative and strategic department’.

defra has already started on the programme by making some high-level changes to its structure. These have meant that, since the beginning of April, the former directorates general within the department have been replaced by six new ‘groups’. One consequence of this is that the Animal Health and Welfare Directorate General (formerly the Animal Health and Veterinary Group) is no more. Instead, a Food and Farming Group has been formed to ‘cover the work formerly done by the Animal Health and Welfare (ahwdg) and Sustainable Farming and Food (ssf) Directorates General, embracing the responsibilities of the Chief Veterinary Officer.’

The purpose of the new group will be ‘the business of delivering environmental, economic and health benefits by developing new relationships and ways of working that enable food and farming to manage risk, connect with markets and assure the safety and sustainable environmental impact of our food supply systems.’ defra believes it makes sense to merge the ahwdg and ssfdg because a lot of work in these areas is related. For example, it points out, work on animal welfare is closely related to the economic viability of the livestock sector.

The other groups formed as a result of the reorganisation are a Climate Change Group and a Natural Environment Group, along with a Strategy and Evidence Group, a Legal Group and a Service Transformation Group.

It is easy to dismiss such changes as managerial tinkering. However, they do tend to reflect an organisation's priorities, and can also affect future policies. The loss of a specific animal health and welfare directorate, and a possible dilution of the veterinary input, is worrying, particularly at a time when a new Animal Welfare Act has come into force and the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy is still struggling to get off the ground.

The changes taking place in defra need to be seen in the wider context of the Government's reforms of the Civil Service and, in particular, a series of ‘capability reviews’ the Government is undertaking to assess the performance of its departments. The outcome of the review of defra's capability, along with the permanent secretary's response, was published at the end of March. This document highlights a number of areas where improvements can be made and makes clear that further changes can be expected. An indication of the nature of those changes is provided by the permanent secretary who, in her response, makes a commitment that, through its renewal programme, ‘defra will be a different shape and smaller, a place where it is easy to get things done. The programme will deliver in months, not years.’

Key aspects of the renewal programme are that defra will be ‘significantly reduced in size’ by April 2008, and that it will be moving to ‘a much more project-based approach, with fewer staff in core teams’. Following bids from senior officers, resources (funding and staff) will be allocated to specific projects, ‘rather than to large aggregate blocks “owned” by departmental board executives’. This, the capability review suggests, will provide an opportunity to match resources against the department's priorities.

Quite what this will mean for animal health under the new structure remains to be seen. However, with the emphasis in the department now so firmly on the environment, and on transferring more of the costs and responsibilities for animal health to the food and livestock industries, the signs are not encouraging.

The review identifies four areas where defra's capability for delivery requires urgent development. These concern its ability to ‘ignite passion, pace and drive’; to take responsibility for leading delivery and change; to plan, resource and prioritise; and to manage performance. The department is considered to be well placed to set direction, focus on outcomes and base choices on evidence, while its capacity to build capability, build common purpose and develop clear roles, responsibilities and business models is felt to be in need of improvement.

The document recognises that defra has ‘a diverse and hugely challenging agenda’, but says ‘the real challenge comes in implementing what has been identified as needing to be done’. The permanent secretary's response makes clear that the department is determined to square up to this task. Predicting just what happens next is complicated by recent speculation that defra might be merged with the Department of Trade and Industry when the current Prime Minister steps down. However, irrespective of that, it is already clear that the department is changing, and changing fast.

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