From its inception in 1916 the central purpose of the Cabinet Office was to act as the secretariat for the Cabinet and its committees: the arrangement of meetings, circulation of agendas and papers, the preparation of minutes, and the drafting of reports.
While the Office does not usually have an executive role in the carrying out of Cabinet decisions, which is the duty of the relevant government department, it has had co-ordination functions at various times. This was especially the case during the Second World War. The Office has also developed areas of expertise, which are cross departmental in nature, on which it offers advice such as drafts of answers to parliamentary questions, conduct of ministers and security.
The governments of the 1980s and 1990s initiated a programme of legal and administrative reform of government structures and civil service management processes. Although more radical these changes were in some ways a continuation of the reforms which had flowed from the Fulton Report and had led to the establishment of the Civil Service Department. That department was dissolved in December 1981, its responsibilities for efficiency, personnel management and training passing to a new Management and Personnel Office (MPO). In 1982 the Management and Personnel Office, including the Ceremonial Branch, was incorporated within the Cabinet Office structure.
From the first meeting of the War Cabinet on the 9 December 1916, Maurice Hankey, the Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, was in attendance and the Cabinet Office came into being.
At the end of the First World War and the return to a full cabinet in 1919 the Cabinet Office was reorganised. There was a Home Affairs Branch, which became the Cabinet Office proper, and an Imperial, External Affairs and Defence Branch, which in 1922 emerged as the secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence, Hankey being secretary of both. However, there was no basic change from the War Cabinet methods of record-keeping and by the mid-1920s the Cabinet Office was confirmed as a permanent part of the machinery of government.
During the Peace Conference of 1919 to 1920 the Office also had an office in Paris.
In November 1922 duties in connection with the League of Nations, undertaken by the Cabinet Office since November 1919, and International Conferences were transferred to the Foreign Office.
The Cabinet Office also provided the secretariat for the Committee of Civil Research from 1925, it successor the Economic Advisory Council from 1930, and the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence from 1936.
When Edward Bridges succeeded Hankey in 1938 the composite office became known as the Offices of the Cabinet, Committee of Imperial Defence, Economic Advisory Council and Minister for Co-ordination of Defence.
During the Second World War, there was no basic change in the organisation of the Office. It came to include the Chiefs of Staff organisation, the staff of the Minister of Defence from May 1940 and in 1941 the Central Statistical Office and Economic Section.
A Special Secret Information Centre was set up in London in 1941 and certain co-ordinating functions passed to the Ministry of Production in 1942 and to the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1943.
From the end of the Second World War until the incorporation of the Management and Personnel Office in 1981-82 the functions of the Cabinet Office remain substantially as established by Hankey, though other major responsibilities were undertaken by it from time to time, and non-departmental ministers and officials have been attached to it, examples being the attachment of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with special responsibility for policies in respect of UK accession to the European Communities in the early 1970s.
The Central Policy Review Staff came under the Office between 1970 and 1983, as does the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.
From the time of the incorporation of the Management and Personnel Office in 1981-82, under both conservative and labour administrations, the Cabinet Office has additionally been given lead responsibility for pushing forward machinery of government and civil service management development and change. Day to day responsibility for the Management and Personnel Office was carried by variously, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1981-1982 and 1984-1985), the Lord Privy Seal (1982-1983) and the Minister of State at the Privy Council Office (1983-1984 and 1985-1988). In 1988 it was renamed the Office of the Minister for the Civil Service. In 1992 it was combined with a new Office of Science and Technology to form the Office of Public Service and Science, with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as its political head. In 1995 the Office of Science and Technology was transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Trade and Industry, and accordingly Science was dropped from the title of the Office of Public Service, and in 1998 the Office of Public Service and its functions were reintegrated within the mainstream Cabinet Office.
Responsibility for the Civil Service College came to the Cabinet Office in 1981-82 with the Management and Personnel Office, and the College was cre-constituted as an executive agency in 1989; in 1999 it was reabsorbed into the Cabinet Office within the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.
In 1994 a new post of director general of the research councils was created within the Cabinet Office, the incumbent serving also as chairman of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils.
In 1995 the Competitiveness and Deregulation divisions were transferred from the Department of Trade and Industry to the Cabinet Office as part of the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State.
Following the privatisation of the HMSO printing and publication activities in 1996 Her Majesty's Stationery Office policy unit was absorbed in to the Cabinet Office as a division within the Machinery of Government and Standards Group. Its head, the Controller of her Majesty's Stationery Office is appointed by letters patent as the Queen's Printer of Acts of Parliament. The Controller's responsibilities extend to include superintendence of the printing of Church of England Measures, Statutory Publications, the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes, and he also retains the responsibility for control and administration of Crown Copyright .