Building a Better Government – “GOD” talk

24 April 2013

Lord O’Donnell, the former Secretary of the UK Cabinet Office and Head of the Civil Service, is apparently contemplating the role of Governor of the Bank of England.  Baron Gus O’Donnell (“GOD”) had training as an economist. Appointments during his career with both the IMF and the World Bank perhaps indicate appropriate experience.  The current Deputy Governor, the heir apparent, may have a lesser view of Lord O’Donnell’s suitability.  An inference may be that challenges as a cross bench member of the House of Lords have little continuing attraction.

Today, he will deliver an Inaugural Speech as a Visiting Professor at University College.

The speech is titled Building a Better Government: the Political and Constitutional Reforms necessary to build Better Governments. A trailer for the speech suggests that he considers political change to be as important as any contribution of the bureaucracy to better government.

The New Zealand drive for Better Public Services has kept clear of expecting changes by politicians but other aspects have identifiable equivalents to Lord O’Donnell’s proposals. According to the Constitution Unit blog he will make a forthright and political declaration about needing “… to build a consensus for change that will be embraced across the political spectrum. The goal is a noble one: to increase wellbeing sustainably and reduce inequality. Better politics for a better Britain.”  He recommends:

  • A joint Office of Taxpayer Responsibility (OTR) and Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) to cost and evaluate new policies and each major party’s election manifesto.
  • A smarter bureaucracy to make greater use of behavioural sciences to assess the needs and responses of the public for better services.
  • A new agency, along the lines of the Canadian Public Tenders, to ensure the taxpayer doesn’t miss out commercially in negotiations with the private sector.
  • An emphasis on improving wellbeing, rather than just meeting targets, leading to better policies in areas like health and welfare, while living within budget constraints.
  • Reform of the political decision making process, including
    •  training and development opportunities for backbenchers to prepare them for ministerial office, and
    • a way for the centre of government to assess the performance of departments at the political as well as the policy level.
  • A greater diversity among politicians to better represent communities, leading to policies more suited to social diversity.

Tough at the top

7 May 2012

The indignation of the media at handling by the State Services Commissioner of a complaint about the chief executive of the Department of Building and Housing is outdone this weekend by the Scottish media coverage of the Head of the Scottish Civil Service. He has been accused of being a lackey of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party.
The essence of public service professionalism is impartiality – the ability to serve the Government regardless of the party in power. The Scottish Government permanent secretary has been accused of failing to uphold this principle in what The Scotsman describes as a “… rare public criticism of a leading mandarin by all three opposition parties…”
The issue relates to the local body elections last week (incidentally, in which the SNP did less well than anticipated by many). The Civil Service Head has a role to monitor ministers’ compliance with the Ministerial code. He rejected a complaint that a Minister breached guidelines when making a Government announcement in the first week of the three week election campaign. The announcement of funding, exempting many from local authority rates rises, was seen by Opposition MPs as Government interference to benefit its adherents in local government.
There was no adverse action taken by the permanent secretary on the basis that the public interest statement was made on the first available occasion.
This is seen as a partisan rationalisation by opposition parties,  disregarding  the responsibility for fairness in reviewing complaints under the code. “This is yet another decision that questions his impartiality. …(he) needs to be reminded that he works for the public, not for the SNP…  The checks and balances that the permanent secretary is supposed to be providing in his role are being sorely missed and (he) seems content to cheer on (the First Minister) rather than scrutinise his conduct…”
The matter will be referred to the Head of the UK Civil Service. A previous complaint about a breach of impartiality standards was rejected in 2011 by (the then) Sir Gus O’Donnell. His decision was that comments made on the Scottish independence campaign, “should not be seen as inconsistent with the civil service code”.
There is a certain simplicity in media criticism. Decisions in these circumstances by the Scottish Civil Service Head, and similarly the UK Civil Service Head and the State Services Commissioner, will not have been made without advice from the respective Solicitors General. Actions will be based on that guidance about legal duties.
 ( The Head of the Scottish Civil Service is an Englishman, who only moved to Scotland two years ago on being appointed to that position. He is a UK civil servant and subordinate to the Head of the UK Civil Service.)

Chooks getting the better of the fox?

31 October 2011

 British commentators have noted that an outcome of the inquiry into the conduct of Britain’s former Defence Minister is a tilting of the balance of power in favour of the civil service. Recommendations in the Secretary to the Cabinet’s report to the Prime Minister will “tighten a department’s grip on its minister”.

In what seems an extraordinary exposition of the institutional status of departments, Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report indicates that departmental staff should attend any meeting at which official matters might be raised, “and should be told if any ministerial acquaintances are ‘involved in policy development’ ” . Some see this as “an alarmingly catch-all phrase” attacking the ministerial practice of obtaining advice and support from outside the public service.

This will reinforce the way officials can constrain challenges to departmental advice. The commitment last year by the UK Government to establish a register of lobbyists is likely to lessen the willingness of some parties to be seen influencing ministers. With the involvement of officials at all meetings “the influence of …mandarins is likely to grow”.

The Economist reports on a “tension in the government between reforming ministers, keen to push power away from central government in areas such as education, welfare and policing, and their more cautious civil servants. In this war of attrition, each side scores victories. It was recently announced that Sir Gus will soon be replaced by Jeremy Heywood, who shares the government’s enthusiasm for decentralising the state. That was a coup for the government. But Whitehall might be about to strike back. ”

A similar situation is most unlikely in New Zealand, where ministers have shown no embarrassment about getting non departmental advice, and are wholly unconvinced about the need for any limitations on lobbying, despite international good practice advocated by the OECD.


Changing of the Guard

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.”

Is unplanned change good government?

7 April 2011

The UK Civil Service is undergoing major change. At the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) in March, Cabinet Minister Francis Maude and his supporting officials said that they were seeking “intense change” and a “dramatic change in culture”. “The civil service will inevitably become much smaller, flatter and less hierarchical, as it should do.” The intention is to centralise the way senior officials work.

A report is that there was quite a lively debate about whether the ‘change programme’ would be successful without some sort of plan. The Minister and his officials, including Gus O’Donnell, Head of the Civil Service, said that there was “no blueprint” and they proposed to implement the changes “for the first time without a White Paper”, although there would shortly be a White Paper on Public Sector Reform. “A lot of this is just common sense – not revolution”. They wanted to “reduce the audit culture which stops good as well as bad things”. And budget cuts would invigorate the service by encouraging innovation.

The PASC members were sceptical. Surely every successful change programme needed to be planned? “Having a plan is an act of leadership.” In response, senior official Ian Watmore declared that he was a change expert, recruited from the private sector, and saw no need for a plan. An example of a good but unplanned change would be that civil servants would now be encouraged to work in temporary project teams, rather than in fixed hierarchies. Gus O’Donnell added that “change will only be successful if it is being done by them, not to them”,

The NZ State Services code of conduct requires that we are responsible in what we do and how we use agency resources. Guidance on Understanding the code of conduct refers to the statutory duty to be efficient, effective and economical, but doesn’t explicitly refer to a need to plan the way we work. Is it responsible to undertake major change without a plan?