12 October 2011

An interesting change in governance arrangements at the top of the British Civil Service has been announced contemporaneously with news that Sir Gus O’Donnell will retire at the end of the year.  O’Donnell is both Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service.  The roles will be split in future.  A new Cabinet Secretary has been announced, but the Civil Service leadership position will be opened up to existing permanent secretaries.

There is no commentary so far on the policy reasons behind separating the positions.  O’Donnell was seen by some as very  close to the former Labout Government, and less able to provide incoming Ministers with the oversight of the Civil Service that was expected. This may reflect the commitment of the Government to substantially reduce Civil Service size and funding.  Civil servants were called “enemies of enterprise” by the Prime Minister earlier this year. However, yesterday the Prime Minister described him as “the outstanding civil servant of his generation”.

A job to be completed by O’Donnell before he leaves is to investigate whether there has been a breach of the Ministerial code by the Minister of Defence in allowing a “close friend”  to have access to departmental offices and officials and possibly to get a commercial advantage from the relationship.

O’Donnell was in Wellington 18 months ago for a meeting with counterparts from Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  Reports at that time indicated that he recognised the contribution which New Zealand’s Cabinet Manual made towards constitutional stability in an election period.  Provisions which he replicated in Britain proved their worth in the formation of the British Administration following the 2010 General Election. This is the background to the Prime Minister’s praise that O’Donnell’s support, during the formation of the coalition Government, was invaluable.

“He has given dedicated and professional service under five Prime Ministers, the last four of whom he has worked with very closely. I know that they will join me in thanking him for all his hard work, patience, loyalty, good humour and sound judgment.”