Lord O’Donnell Suggests …. that someone rather like him should be put in charge of vetting government policy. Seriously?


Lord O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, has put forward some ideas for better scrutiny of proposed government policies. According to a report in Civil Service World:

Among ideas to prevent “bad policies” from being introduced, [O’Donnell] said a new Office of Taxpayer Responsibility (OTR) should assess policies, requiring the government to specify their objectives and explain how success would be measured.

The OTR would be made up of ex-civil servants – particularly those with Treasury experience – ex-ministers, and private sector members, and would produce a report for Parliament before legislation could be passed.

To be fair, this is only a brief report of what Gus O’Donnell said, but if it’s correct it is a definite case of “one step forward and two steps back”.

The step forward is that it represents an admission from Britain’s former top mandarin of what many of us have been saying for years – all is not well in the policy-making processes of Whitehall.

However, what is not clear is what O’Donnell’s diagnosis of the problem is. Does he think we are getting too many bad policy decisions because Ministers insist on over-riding the carefully considered views of Mandarins – or is it because Mandarins are giving bad or shoddily thought-through policy advice to Ministers.

In recent spats between Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office in the current Government, and Lord O’Donnell and sundry other former Mandarins, it is pretty clear O’Donnell thinks it’s the former rather than the latter. Hence, I guess, his suggestion that the solution to Minister-inspired bad policy is to put more restraint on Ministers through an independent Office of Taxpayer Responsibility (OTR).

And who does he think should staff it? Why, ex-civil servants, preferably with experience of the Treasury – now who might Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, be thinking of I wonder?

What Lord O’Donnell doesn’t suggest – because it’s not in the DNA of Whitehall Mandarins to think like this – is that perhaps Parliament is the best place to beef-up scrutiny of policy. Rather than an “independent” OTR, why not a Parliamentary Budget Office, along lines of the US Congressional Budget Office? It does all the things the OTR and existing Office for Budget Responsibility do, but in one place and attached to the legislature.

Earlier this year the Public Accounts Committee floated the idea that departmental select committees should be able to look at spending proposals to “provide external challenge and accountability”. This is an idea I first floated at the Treasury Select Committee more than a decade ago. Since then I have come to the conclusion that Select Committees would need the back-up of a Parliamentary Budget Office to be able to do this effectively.

The British Parliament spent about 300 years getting control of public money away from the Monarchy, only to hand it back to the ‘monarchical state’ in the form of HM Government (elected and permanent). It’s about time it started taking some power back. And not, as Lord O’Donnell proposes, handing it over to some ex-Mandarin dominated quango.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Accountability, Parliament, Public Administration, Spending, Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lord O’Donnell Suggests …. that someone rather like him should be put in charge of vetting government policy. Seriously?

  1. Inquisitive Practitioner says:

    Might I suggest that during the former Cabinet Secretary’s appointments spanning a period of increasing sociotechnical complexity that little progress has actually been made to implement the necessary radical change so often identified as essential if the country’s public sector is to have requisite capability to evaluate policy. There are many, many, examples of this deficit but just to use one to illustrate the point (there are many others in the news every day) the updating of the Green and Magenta Books which are supposed to be about policy evaluation as this extract taken from the Introduction to latter identifies: The risk of not evaluating, or of poor evaluation, is that policy makers are not aware if policies are ineffective or, worse still, result in overall perverse, adverse or costly outcomes.

    Correspondence with the Treasury, who own the guidance, during this period identified that the approach was to be entirely orthodox; striving to do better what had been done before, an approach of sustaining innovation rather than the creative destruction of radical or disruptive innovation; moving beyond the comfort zone of the familiar to accept a heterodox approach that could replace the traditional 3Es with possibly 3Vs (Viable, Verifiable & Valid). As Einstein informed us: No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. We need to see the world anew.” – But such reorientation takes leadership as well as good management.

    The proposal for an: Office of Taxpayer Responsibility (OTR) should assess policies, requiring the government to specify their objectives and explain how success would be measured is an activity that is supposed to be done today but isn’t because the tools of their trade are inadequate for the job; the responsibility of which must reside with the leadership within the Civil Service in Central Gov and Public Servants in Local Gov.

    One of the functions of the House of Lords is supposed to be that of a revising chamber (in its ping-pong role with the legislature of the Commons) this is the proper place for policy evaluation to be conducted – the Liaison Committee is currently exploring the roles of Committees which in reality need their own new tool box to improve decision making in complex non-linear service delivery, if they are to better understand (when there is a shortage of wisdom) the why as to what is systemically sensitive and thus important.

    Having once been a mentor for Civil Servants in a Gov. Dept. it was surprising how little understanding there was of the difference between the lexicon of the appointed vs. the lexicon of the elected; where too often capabilities (based on past experience) of the appointed were inadequate to the challenge of evaluating and implementing the policy (ends) of the elected – the traditional doctrine of operational tactics (means) being inadequate but still used to determine strategy (tail wagging dog) – to inform policy and provide direction to operational delivery. What resonated was good what reverberated was considered bad or inappropriate.

    To sideline the challenge of effective policy evaluation and identifying appropriate strategy it was again too often mentioned that the civil service aspired to be: more business like without being like a business! At first this seemed quite sensible, but then it became easier for the administration to believe they might overcome their difficulties if only they became: more like a business; this would allow common use business processes to become the norm in decision thinking; but the structure of business is different to that of the public sector, hence, we end up with increasing stress and conflict in the delivery system as it strives to deliver less than viable policy using verifiable means that are only valid to the function of inappropriate audit. I.e. building the wrong system right does not make it any less wrong.

    The former Cabinet Secretary’s opportunity was when in office; perhaps what is first required is a revised scrutiny process for appointing members to the Revising Chamber – the Upper House?

  2. Brat says:

    In all cases – MInisters, Civil Servants, and Parliamentarians – you are looking for amateurs to develop policies. Better in my view to look for policies to be designed and vetted by people who actually know what they are doing.

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