O'Donnell welcomes plans to merge top civil service jobs

Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell has welcomed the government’s plan to recombine the jobs of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, telling Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that “having one person doing both jobs is a big step forward.”


By Matt Ross

16 Jul 2014

O’Donnell has always previously declined to criticise the prime minister’s decision to split the jobs he held until leaving office at the end of 2011, telling CSW in December 2011 that the split made sense because both roles had expanded in recent years. He rejected suggestions that the head of the civil service, without regular access to the PM, might become isolated, saying: "Bob's got real authority, and he's got it incredibly quickly among a group of perm secs - not an easy thing to do."

Speaking this morning, he said: “What we’ve got now is a return to the old model, which is very good for the civil service because the head of the civil service will now see the prime minister every day.”

O’Donnell’s job was split three ways in January 2012, with Sir Jeremy Heywood becoming cabinet secretary, Ian Watmore permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office (who was subsequently replaced by Richard Heaton), and Sir Bob Kerslake head of the civil service – a post he combined with his role as permanent secretary at the communities department.

The job split has been widely criticised ever since – including by CSW, which wrote in an Editorial on 16 November 2011 that the job split created particular problems for the head of the civil service "who must catalyse reform without the cabinet secretary's heft or ready access to the prime minister" and "strengthen corporate management will standing outside the corporate centre”.

O’Donnell said that the PM deserves praise for avoiding disruptive reshuffles for the last four years, calling it something “we should celebrate”. He added, though, that the new ministers appear to be largely “for presentation”, as there’s not enough time left before the election for them to make a big impact in policy terms.

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