Rise of the meritocrat

21 Jul 06
PHILIP JOHNSTON | Sir Gus O’Donnell might possess the knighthood that still goes with the job — but he is a very different animal from the previous occupants of his high office.

Sir Gus O’Donnell might possess the knighthood that still goes with the job — but he is a very different animal from the previous occupants of his high office.

Unlike almost every previous Cabinet secretary and civil service head, he did not go to public school or Oxbridge. He is the ultimate Whitehall meritocrat.

It was O’Donnell’s serendipity that his period as press spokesman at the Treasury coincided with the meteoric rise of another meritocrat. During John Major’s brief period as chancellor of the exchequer, he

came to like and trust O’Donnell so much that he took him with him to Number 10 when he became prime minister in 1990.

Since returning to the Treasury in 1994, O’Donnell has risen to the top of his profession, and in a way that gives him credibility when it comes to identifying the flaws in the way the civil service goes about its tasks.

This week, he published the first four Departmental Capability Reviews that he commissioned from the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit when he became Cabinet secretary last year. Essentially, his intention is to try to coax out of central government the sort of improvements achieved by the Comprehensive Performance Assessments in local government. To do this, it is first essential to identify areas of weakness, which was the purpose of the reviews.

O’Donnell has made a flying start. In his first four months, he appointed ten new permanent secretaries, an almost unprecedented upheaval in Whitehall at such a high level. He has brought in outsiders such as David Bell, the former chief inspector of schools and a one-time head teacher, to be permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills. Bell is said by insiders to be ‘a breath of fresh air’ because he understands how schools work and what can and cannot be done.

If there has been a fundamental problem in recent years with Whitehall it has been its tendency to run public services from the centre through targets and performance indicators that limit the freedom of local management.

If the people at the top of the civil service had themselves been on the other end of this centralised control, they might have been more inclined to identify its flaws. O’Donnell takes the view that the best policy advisers are those who have spent time on the front line, running something.

So what do we learn from the first reviews? Not a great deal that we did not already know. Ian Watmore, the head of the Delivery Unit, helpfully provided a colour chart. This definitively showed that the Home Office was a seriously failing department, while Work & Pensions, Constitutional Affairs and Education & Skills were, by and large, performing well although they all had weaknesses ‘in capability for future delivery that require urgent action’.

One theme that emerged was that departments whose services are delivered by agencies seemed to do better than those that relied on

in-house delivery. Picking the best model for delivery might be the most beneficial aspect of this exercise from the public’s point of view.

Within Whitehall, it will bring both challenges and rewards. Permanent secretaries who fail to cut the mustard face curbs on bonuses and pay increases. On the other hand, there will be a ‘corporate leadership’ development programme for the top 200 officials who will drive the reforms forward.

O’Donnell, launching his reviews at the Home Office, said what was needed was a ‘grown-up approach to risk’. There had to be a culture that not only encouraged risk but was big enough to accept failure when it happened.

This is a pretty radical agenda. Although the culture has been changing in Whitehall, it has not changed that much; and why should officials trust their political masters to back them up if ‘risk-taking’ goes wrong? It has been noticeable in the past few years that ministers are adept at blaming civil servants for failures.

Inherent in this reform programme is a shift of accountability away from politicians to officials. As O’Donnell observed, this is a balance that still has to be sorted out.

On the other hand, public expectations have risen to the point where the civil service must respond. A report out this week from the Commons Public Accounts Committee said that despite all the attempted reforms of the past two decades, public services are still designed for the convenience of officials rather than for those who need them. It concluded that people ‘want public services that work, that are easy to find out about, simple to use and responsive to their needs’.

So does Tony Blair, though he will be long gone by the time O’Donnell fulfils the task he has been set and delivers them. If he succeeds, he will leave behind a civil service that is fundamentally different to the one he joined.

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