23 December 2011
Sir Gus O’Donnell who leaves office as Head of the UK civil service and Cabinet Secretary at the end of the month, has made a series of interesting comments about governance arrangements.
Most newsworthy is his observation that the Union is at risk, with a likelihood that Scotland will go its own way. This follows anger expressed earlier this year that UK civil servants working with the Scottish Government were advising on ways to implementing the Scottish Nationalist Party’s separation policy.
To face “enormous challenges” like the economic crisis, the EU situation,and issues like Scotland’s future, Sir Gus has suggested that officials should be given greater opportunities for “doing more for less”. Ministers should be less enthusiastic about legislating change, reducing rather than increasing the amount of regulation.
He is concerned about public access to Cabinet minutes. He worries about the implications for effective government if records of debates among Ministers at Cabinet meetings are to be made available under the freedom of information law. Although a transparency advocate, he considers Ministers need to be comfortable knowing that they can strongly disagree with proposals without matters being disclosed until the general release of documents by National Archives after 20 years.
As Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus takes minutes of Cabinet discussions. He said he was concerned that in future officials will tone down any record of dissent in Cabinet minutes to avoid Ministers being embarrassed if material must be disclosed. He indicated that he did not fudge minutes but that rules requiring the release of records of Cabinet discussions could have that effect in future.
(No records of debates within Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee are disclosed in New Zealand. Minutes of formal decisions made by Cabinet have restricted circulation and constraints on accessibility. The Cabinet Manual sets out the interface between the Official Information Act and Cabinet material.)
Another interesting observation by Sir Gus was his impression of the effectiveness of lobbyists. His view is that lobbyists exaggerate their access and influence as part of self promotion. He feels that businessmen can get their message across to decision makers quite openly, and that officials should be able to make direct contact when seeking information. Lobbyists should be dispensed with. “It’s very important that we as civil servants aren’t monks. I need to be able to pick up the phone to the chairman of a FTSE 100 company and say ‘What’s going on?”
It is interesting to speculate on the business-related roles Sir Gus may take on in his retirement. The expectation is that he will be appointed to the House of Lords.