MPs should do more to spot potential public policy disasters before they happen instead of blaming civil servants after the fact, according to the former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee kicked off its wide-ranging inquiry into the future of the civil service this week, taking evidence from Lord O’Donnell, who served as cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011.
In the wake of high-profile problems with the Universal Credit welfare shake-up and the Department for Transport’s rail franchising programme in the last parliament, O’Donnell faced questions from the committee on whether the civil service does enough to challenge ministers over the feasibility of big public projects.
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O’Donnell said part of the problem with the current system was a lack of scrutiny before major policies are given parliamentary approval, and he urged MPs to be more proactive in weighing up the “operational difficulties there might be” before giving the nod to an initiative.
“Our problem, in terms of the way we look at accountability, is that we’re forever doing it ex-post," he said.
The former cabinet secretary instead called for more “ex-ante accountability”, including regular assessments from the Major Projects Authority about the viability of a proposed scheme and clear, published “milestones” from ministers to allow ongoing scrutiny.
O’Donnell also warned against calling for changes to the culture of the civil service without also asking ministers to be more open to challenge.
“It’s a bit like looking at Formula One and saying, ‘We’re going to do [an inquiry into] Formula One — we’re going to assess what’s happening, and we’re going to look at the cars — but we’re not going to look at the drivers'," he argued. “You’ve got to look at both.”
Ministers, he said, should be open to a “warts-and-all” analysis from their civil servants about flagship policies, rather than promoting a good news culture.
He added: “I don’t accept that if you’re really interested in the quality of government, you just ‘hey, thats the way ministers are’. Surely you say, let’s train them, let’s appraise them.”
The former cabinet secretary also pointed out that ministers could still press ahead with controversial policies in the face of civil service warnings.
O'Donnell revealed that he and other colleagues had expressed reservations about former health secretary Andrew Lansley’s controversial reorganisation of the National Health Service in the last parliament.
“This was at the start of the coalition," he recalled. "And we went through and had a number of different meetings at different levels with the Treasury, with [then-minister for policy] Oliver Letwin, with [the Department] of Health, and it went to cabinet a number of times. A number of us said, ‘Look, I’m really nervous about this’.
"And in the end, cabinet had their discussion […] and in the end, they said ‘Okay, we’ve heard it all and we’ll carry on'. You can’t do much more than that.”