Reflecting on a lifetime as a UK public servant Lord Gus O’Donnell has come to a sobering conclusion – government is not very good at achieving results.
“It’s highly variable,” he admits, “but, in general, governments do struggle to have impact.”
An economist by training, O’Donnell’s public service career began when he joined the UK Treasury in 1979 and included stints at the British Embassy in Washington, the IMF and the World Bank. He was promoted to cabinet secretary – the most senior official in the British civil service – in 2005. It was in this role, thanks to his initials, that he became known in Whitehall as ‘God’.
Since leaving the civil service in 2011, ‘God’ splits his time between championing better policymaking around the world and enjoying retirement. “I’m off to play tennis at Wimbledon after this,” he announces impressively. Against the current prime minister perhaps (David Cameron is known to be a keen tennis player)? “No-one famous,” he admits before adding, “the PM is a better player than me!”
O’Donnell – looking long-term, or not
O’Donnell’s career has given him a unique insight into the pressures faced by senior politicians, having worked directly with (if not played tennis against) four prime ministers. “All the incentives on ministers are to over-promise and under-deliver,” he explains. “Really you want the reverse, but while politicians like making announcements the grind of delivery is not attractive to them, so they don’t give it enough attention.”
“Perhaps the single biggest failure of our current system is its short-termism. New ministers, keen to make their mark, will often rush to reverse the policies of their predecessors or implement reforms of their own even where the evidence base may be weak. This can result in a frustrating and seemingly endless state of change for much of the public sector.”
But can we really lay all the blame on the politicians? Is it not the job of civil servants to counteract this tendency to some degree? O’Donnell offers a diplomatic response. “Public officials have an important role to play offering objective advice on the feasibility and risks of what’s being proposed, but ultimately they too work within the constraints of a pressured policy environment.”
It’s an interesting insight about decision-making processes at the highest levels of government and the relationship between officials and politicians. “Policymaking is rarely a neat process and seldom systematic,” O’Donnell observes. “Whitehall tends to be buffeted by events and the next thing on the political agenda, whether that is dealing with an unexpected emergency, planning for an upcoming announcement or preparing for Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. It’s an environment that unfortunately leaves scant time for pausing to evaluate how well new initiatives are working or whether there might have been a better way to roll out a particular policy.”
It’s a frank admission of the limitations of government from a man who’s had as good an opportunity as anyone to do something about it. O’Donnell’s response was to use his time as Cabinet Secretary to introduce a new leadership model to the UK civil service that placed a greater emphasis on impact. “Effective leaders do something very simple,” he explains. “They set out a vision for the future, they engage the people around them on how that vision can be achieved and then they bring the necessary resources and capabilities together to deliver.”
Impact insights – O’Donnell style
O’Donnell retired in 2011 but the Future – Engage – Deliver (FED) model he introduced is still used as the basis for training all senior civil servants. Even so, progress has been slow and may even have gone into reverse in recent years. “There have been some dramatic steps backwards,” he admits, “the current government decided to move away from a focus on outcomes and I think that was a mistake because without clarity of outcomes it is very difficult to create a vision that connects with reality.”
When it comes to the ultimate outcome, ‘God’ is very clear on the answer. “I’m a strong believer that the business of government should be about improving the wellbeing of the populations they serve.” O’Donnell has been championing the concept of ‘wellbeing’, or life satisfaction, for several years now based on the observation that GDP is too narrow a measure of prosperity. Instead, policy should aim at increasing people’s satisfaction with their lives, using measures of wellbeing as an indicator of success.
“I’m not arguing that GDP measures should be dropped entirely,” he explains. “They have a long history and are very useful for making comparisons over time and between countries, but they don’t tell the whole story.”
So if improving wellbeing is the objective, how should governments go about it? O’Donnell advocates bringing more evidence into the policymaking process, citing initiatives like the Warwick Policy Lab, which aims to make greater use of randomised control trials and other data to inform policy. He’s also a big fan of behavioural economics, colloquially known as ‘nudging’. “There’s a growing body of evidence about how people make decisions and the predictable mistakes we all make. Policy makers should be drawing on that.”
It’s a very rational view of the world which is somewhat hard to reconcile with the observation that politicians are driven by far more immediate instincts. Why would they sign up for this kind of scrutiny which will inevitably limit their freedom?
O’Donnell acknowledges that the incentives currently in place aren’t sufficient. “In the UK I think what’s required is a new office of taxpayer responsibility that would cost and evaluate new policies before they are given the green light. At the moment we conduct policy evaluations ex post facto, by which time everyone has moved on, making the whole process pretty pointless.”
Although the current UK government has yet to take up O’Donnell’s suggestion, it is clear that this is a debate unlikely to fade away. Evidence, wellbeing and impact may yet take their rightful places at the heart of the British policymaking machine – watch this space.
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