Lord O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, has put forward some ideas for better scrutiny of proposed government policies. According to a report in Civil Service World:
Among ideas to prevent “bad policies” from being introduced, [O’Donnell] said a new Office of Taxpayer Responsibility (OTR) should assess policies, requiring the government to specify their objectives and explain how success would be measured.
The OTR would be made up of ex-civil servants – particularly those with Treasury experience – ex-ministers, and private sector members, and would produce a report for Parliament before legislation could be passed.
To be fair, this is only a brief report of what Gus O’Donnell said, but if it’s correct it is a definite case of “one step forward and two steps back”.
The step forward is that it represents an admission from Britain’s former top mandarin of what many of us have been saying for years – all is not well in the policy-making processes of Whitehall.
However, what is not clear is what O’Donnell’s diagnosis of the problem is. Does he think we are getting too many bad policy decisions because Ministers insist on over-riding the carefully considered views of Mandarins – or is it because Mandarins are giving bad or shoddily thought-through policy advice to Ministers.
In recent spats between Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office in the current Government, and Lord O’Donnell and sundry other former Mandarins, it is pretty clear O’Donnell thinks it’s the former rather than the latter. Hence, I guess, his suggestion that the solution to Minister-inspired bad policy is to put more restraint on Ministers through an independent Office of Taxpayer Responsibility (OTR).
And who does he think should staff it? Why, ex-civil servants, preferably with experience of the Treasury – now who might Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, be thinking of I wonder?
What Lord O’Donnell doesn’t suggest – because it’s not in the DNA of Whitehall Mandarins to think like this – is that perhaps Parliament is the best place to beef-up scrutiny of policy. Rather than an “independent” OTR, why not a Parliamentary Budget Office, along lines of the US Congressional Budget Office? It does all the things the OTR and existing Office for Budget Responsibility do, but in one place and attached to the legislature.
Earlier this year the Public Accounts Committee floated the idea that departmental select committees should be able to look at spending proposals to “provide external challenge and accountability”. This is an idea I first floated at the Treasury Select Committee more than a decade ago. Since then I have come to the conclusion that Select Committees would need the back-up of a Parliamentary Budget Office to be able to do this effectively.
The British Parliament spent about 300 years getting control of public money away from the Monarchy, only to hand it back to the ‘monarchical state’ in the form of HM Government (elected and permanent). It’s about time it started taking some power back. And not, as Lord O’Donnell proposes, handing it over to some ex-Mandarin dominated quango.