By CivilServiceWorld

10 Feb 2010

Dominic Martin represents the UK at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, better known as the OECD. He tells Matthew O’Toole how Whitehall can get more out of the statistic-gathering organisation

Dominic Martin (pictured above) could be something of an emblem for a foreign office in transition. His unstuffy, accessible manner sits alongside a CV that includes a classics degree from Oxford and a succession of ever more prestigious diplomatic postings – most recently as counsellor on political and economic affairs at the British embassy in Washington, DC. And he’s keen to stress that there’s nothing fusty or traditional about the job he’s held since 2008: UK ambassador to inter-governmental body the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. “What I like about the job is that some of the traditional peripherals of diplomatic life – cocktail parties, dinners and the like – aren’t really very important at the OECD,” Martin enthuses. “What we do is get round a table and work out what’s best for our governments.”

The OECD, which has its roots in the Organisation of European Economic Cooperation set up to aid the reconstruction of Europe after the war, is an influential and global collection of industrialised countries which share research on a range of policy areas. Martin explains that the UK’s permanent representation exists to promote the country’s interests at the organisation, ensuring that its work is relevant and applicable – but also to explain the OECD to Whitehall. That latter message concerns, as he puts it, “what the OECD can achieve, what [departments’] objectives should be, and how they can get the most out of it.”

Selling the benefits of engagement with the OECD has been made easier, Martin admits, by the international recession; while the organisation’s remit has expanded in recent decades, economic policy remains at the core of its work. “Though it’s a slightly cynical thing to say, the economic crisis is a fantastic opportunity for the OECD,” Martin says. “It’s quite clear we haven’t had a recession of this nature for a very long time, and all OECD governments are thinking about what policy instruments can help us get out of the crisis.”

On labour markets, for example, he says the OECD has a “huge repository of expertise and data” on how past policies have impacted on unemployment. “What the OECD can do for a government is say: ‘In the 1980s, when governments faced similar problems, they tried the following things’.” One practical manifestation of this expertise is a staffer at the OECD’s central secretariat. He’s a “walking encyclopaedia” of policies in previous recessions, says Martin, and is attending a Treasury conference on employment later this month to give a speech and share his extensive knowledge.

That’s exactly the kind of cooperation our man at the OECD wants to encourage – and not just in the area of economic policy. Following the publication of several important reports on governmental reform in recent months, Martin says that’s another area which OECD work can complement. The ‘Smarter Government’ white paper launched by Treasury minister Liam Byrne and Gordon Brown last December has already prompted a response, with Martin’s team organising meetings between the OECD officials who collate comparative data on government performance and the Cabinet Office team implementing the strategy. “The OECD team has real expertise on how other governments are doing things like e-delivery of services,” says Martin. “So, as we develop our thinking in this area, we can get a sense of what’s worked in other countries.”

The OECD team to which Martin is referring also prepares a resource entitled ‘Government at a Glance’, containing exhaustive data on the respective civil service structures in OECD countries. It’s been used heavily by Institute for Government (IfG) researchers in compiling their own – increasingly influential - studies of Whitehall performance. Like many of the documents produced by the OECD, ‘Government at a Glance’ findings can on occasion raise difficult questions about UK performance relative to other OECD countries. Is there ever a tension between OECD work and the interests of national governments – particularly when the body produces work that might be embarrassing on the domestic political front? A rigorous process of peer review is important, Martin replies, adding: “If you take any area of OECD activity, there’ll be some areas where governments are doing extremely well and others where they’ve got work to do – and that applies to the UK as to any other country.”

On the other hand, Martin says, a basic part of his job as a diplomat is to make sure the OECD “understands the reality of what’s happening in the UK”; if his team believed that an OECD document in some way misrepresented British performance, he would contact the relevant policy person in Whitehall to establish the truth. He insists this kind of activity is usually more a technical than a political task. “It’s important that the OECD understands how we collate the statistics in our own countries and how we are using them. We may need to provide some explanation so they understand that the statistics may mean something slightly different in UK terms.”

Eager to point out signs of increasing Whitehall engagement with the OECD, Martin notes that Sir Gus O’Donnell visited the team in September, and attended the first ever meeting of the top officials from all the OECD nations. The meeting involved “all the different ‘Gus O’Donnells’ from all the different countries,” he smiles. “I don’t think that happens in any other international organisations. I am told they had an interesting discussion about how the central coordinating bodies of governments responded to the crisis – though I wasn’t allowed in.” Martin even reads out an endorsement from O’Donnell, encouraging Whitehall staff to use OECD resources: “No country is an island, especially in the current crisis,” he quotes. “Government departments can and should seek to maximise what they get out of the OECD.”

Despite all this goodwill about the OECD’s work, Martin admits that the organisation needs to do more to change its image: that of a “rich man’s club” of industrialised, western nations talking amongst themselves – not least because of the changing nature of global economic power. The power balance is shifting, he says: “You don’t have to be Einstein to see that countries like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia are going to affect the way the world works economically in a way they haven’t in the past.” That means expanding the membership of the organisation; a task that is already underway, with Russia currently negotiating terms of accession. Bringing countries such as China – which the OECD has repeatedly criticised for keeping its currency undervalued – into the organisation, and thus under the rules that govern economic reporting, would have much broader, strategic ramifications, as Martin points out. The aim is to “increase the number of countries who sign up to OECD rules, to the codes of conduct that the OECD has agreed,” he says. “That’s better for the whole world.”

UK government at a glance, by the OECD
Government spending as a proportion of GDP
44.2 per cent (16th out of 30 in OECD)

Proportion spent by central government
71.6 per cent (second highest)

Proportion spent on defence
5.7 per cent (third highest)

Proportion spent on health
16 per cent (eighth highest)

Proportion of women in central government jobs
52.4 per cent (ninth)

Source: OECD Government at a Glance 2009

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