Whitehall focus ODonnell backs transparent decision-making

8 Sep 05
New Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell has indicated that he could tighten up Whitehall's decision-making to help restore trust in the machinery of government.

09 September 2005

New Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell has indicated that he could tighten up Whitehall's decision-making to help restore trust in the machinery of government.

Speaking on his first day in office on September 1, O'Donnell suggested he could clamp down on the sort of opaque decision-making that, according to Lord Butler's report on Iraq, has characterised Prime Minister Tony Blair's informal 'sofa style' of government.

During a tour of the Passport Agency, O'Donnell said: 'I'm quite traditional in the sense that it's very important that the advice that goes in [to government], in terms of audit trails and decisions, is duly noted.'

The 2004 Butler report attacked Number 10 for allowing a small group of advisers to wield unaccountable influence at the expense of traditional and transparent decision-making aided by civil servants.

In the wake of recent polls suggesting that trust in politicians is at an all-time low, O'Donnell, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury, said that trust 'is something that we need to keep working on'. But he denied suggestions that Whitehall has become too politicised through extensive use of special advisers.

He said the government 'only' employed 80 advisers, comparing that figure favourably with the thousands of senior civil servants operating across departments.

He also said Britain's restricted use of advisers and the tradition of a permanent civil service was better than systems elsewhere – such as in the US – where an entire staff of politicised officials could be removed by a single election victory for an opposition party.

O'Donnell, who previously worked for the British Embassy in Washington, said: 'I saw the difficulties this poses for running a department like the Treasury.'

O'Donnell said civil servants should take great pride in the quality of services they currently deliver and praised Whitehall's public service ethos.

'In the private sector, you may increase a company's profits but civil servants can go home and say they've helped create a stronger economy and in turn helped to reduce child poverty. If you can't get motivated about that, then what can you get motivated about?' he said.

ODPM websites launched to boost communications

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has launched a series of websites aimed at improving Whitehall's communications with its regional partners and the public.

The move follows criticism that central communications with and between regional government partners has been inadequate. The new system is also designed to reduce Whitehall's IT costs.

ODPM officials confirmed that the new 'content management system', developed by private firm Mediasurface, went live on September 5. The system has 11 directly linked websites that include a national 'entry site', nine regional Government Office sites and the Regional Co-Ordination Unit's site.

The RCU was set up in 2000 to help Whitehall co-ordinate its regional policy work and local delivery of those policies. It also feeds back the views of regional partners to the ODPM when Whitehall is formulating policy.

Ian Jones, head of communications at the RCU, said a major aim of the reformed system was to prevent the widespread duplication at a regional level of material that had a national focus. Another aim was to make information more relevant to regional partners and public users.

'[The new system] has allowed us to replace ten disparate websites,' he said. '[It] will ensure quality, currency and depth of regional and local information, while the need for the regional offices to produce their own versions of national content has been eliminated. Each separate office has its own team of content authors developing specific regional information.'

Lawrence Flynn, chief executive officer at Mediasurface, said that cost implications had also been vital to Whitehall officials who commissioned the project. 'ODPM expects to see significant efficiency gains across the network, as well as infrastructure savings on hosting and server contracts,' he said.


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