O’Donnell: Government must prioritise objectives, not civil service reform

Reforming the civil service won’t “in itself make a dramatic difference to government effectiveness,” former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell told the Public Administration Select Committee today. Instead, government needs to ensure it is clear about what it wants to achieve, he added.

By Suzannah.Brecknell

12 Feb 2013

O’Donnell said that he would “never be complacent” about reforming the service but “the concept of a Civil Service Reform Plan is something I grapple with. What you want is [to look at]: What is it the government is trying to achieve?”

“If you really want to improve public sector outcomes there is a radical transformation that is necessary, but it’s really thinking about the very basics of what governments need to do and how they  should do it,” he added.

Rather than focusing on changing how the civil service operates, O’Donnell said, the government should first ensure there is “clarity of objectives” across all the public sector. Government must create as much stability and cross party agreement as possible on “big long term issues like social care,” he added, and then consider how best to deliver objectives, whether through public, private or a mixture of both sectors.

“Once you’ve decided all of those things you can decide what kind of civil service you need,” he said.

The former cabinet secretary also defended the civil service during discussions of recent media reports of frustration from ministers with slow implementation. He suggested that many of problems around implementation may stem from lack of agreement between ministers, lack of resources or complex plans which don’t focus on a few key priorities.

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