13 November 2018

Gus O’Donnell (GO’D), Baron O’Donnell former Head of the UK Civil Service gave the Sir Frank Holmes Memorial Address at the School of Government last night. His topic “Global problems, national solutions; building better states and better global architecture” was a frolic around perspectives gained from an impressive career at the centre of the British government.

He made recurring references to the contributions to effective government of good people as he spanned climate change, technology, population ageing, globalisation, comparative systems, organisational structures, the contribution of women, and the ineffectiveness of international organisations.

Lord O’Donnell started optimistically, at a personal level, suggesting things should get better through the endeavours of people that he has “brought on” – with the implication that good leaders grow better leaders.  But he concluded on a macro level with a disheartening assessment that without leadership from the large economies, and inhibited by international organisations structured for the 1950’s, global solutions to global problems are not currently feasible.

We need better government – a 21st-century civil service, but he did not indicate a preferred model.  National leaders must be willing to perform on a global stage.  The best we can expect is regional cooperation.

Among the numerous quips,

  • when speaking of globalisation and the need to compensate those who were disadvantaged, “we need better ways to retrain losers into winners”;
  • “intelligence, like underwear, is important to have but it is not necessary to show it off”;
  • of Civil Service research into the historic practice of terminating employment of women on marriage –“married women are no worse than the unmarried”;
  • on Special Advisers – “the good ones are invaluable, but on the other hand the bad are a problem – they revert to what they know, which is speaking to journalists”;
  • Government is best with a strong centre “Scotland has done it best”;
  • The system of government currently in Northern Ireland  is “Westminster without Ministers – but is it paradise or paralysis?”;
  • “Is it wise to house the politicians together? Keeping Ministers in their departments is best”;
  • on the IMF and the World Bank; “they are not fit for purpose”.