This piece by Lord O'Donnell originally featured in the Constitution Unit Blog on 29th October 2013.
Better Government: Gus O’Donnell answers back
Six months ago i gave my inaugural lecture as a UCL visiting professor which has just appeared as an article for Political Quarterly. My aim was to present some ideas for better government derived from my experience as Cabinet Secretary. I suppose it’s inevitable that some of my ideas have been criticised for being too mandarin-like, specifically for giving more power to civil servants. That’s the predictable stereotype. But at least now I’ve got the freedom to answer back directly.
In my lecture, I mentioned that we should consider looking at open primaries for selecting MPs, something that the columnist and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has supported and, on occasion, the current Prime Minister. Douglas is, however, critical of my idea for pre-qualification criteria for MPs.
I am not arguing, as he claims, that pre-qualification criteria should be set by civil servants. The current system is, in my view, not giving us enough candidates with diverse experiences, such as former doctors or businessmen, and it is delivering insufficient gender and ethnic diversity. Precisely what criteria we should have for qualifying for a job as an MP should be the subject of further debate. There aren’t many jobs that don’t ask for appropriate qualifications and in a world without open primaries and lots of safe seats we are currently allowing a very small group of people to decide who represents us.
This is why the Cabinet Office line that there is no problem as the qualification process is “democracy” is a rather poor response. Tony Blair gave a rather better answer at today’s 100th meeting of the Mile End Group, where he backed open primaries and the desirability of MPs having some experience outside politics before entering Parliament. He pointed out the paradox that Ministers are at their most powerful with the most political capital at the start of a new administration when they are least capable. This reinforces the need to think about how MPs can be better prepared for suddenly being put in charge of huge portfolios.
I also made the case for an Office of Taxpayer Responsibility which would analyse the evidence supporting big policy decisions. Sue Cameron in her Telegraph column criticised the idea as it would involve more jobs for “unelected ex mandarins”, like me. That is not my intention, rather I am looking for a British version of the Australian Productivity Commission, which has an impressive track record. The difficult balancing act is to improve key policies without stopping innovation.
I’ve also been criticised for attacking handouts like the winter fuel payments. My point is that this allowance alone costs over £2 billion. If it were restricted to those receiving pension credit you would probably save around £1.5 billion. And we could use some of this money to help the elderly groups with greatest needs relative to their assets. So we could cut the deficit, simplify administration, reduce the reach of big government and increase help to the most needy. What is stopping them?
Sue Cameron also said it was alright for me to say this as I have a big pension, which is true. Actually, I am too young to get winter fuel payments but I am eligible for a free Oyster card and prescriptions. Since I believe we need to get rid of these policies we should give the Treasury every incentive to do so. That means claiming them. In my case I have decided to give £1000 a year to one of my favourite charities, Pro Bono Economics, which had a great reception courtesy of Sir Andrew Cahn at Nomura last Thursday (Pro Bono do fantastic work helping charities to demonstrate and improve their effectiveness). This will more than offset any financial benefit I get and, as I will of course gift aid it, increase the pressure on The Chancellor to act.
Finally, I should make clear it I don’t intend to go in for rebuttal too frequently. I’m moving on to take over from Sarah Hogg as Chairman of Frontier Economics, the leading European economics consultancy, if agreed at today’s AGM.
For those interested in economics and public policy I recommend reading Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape – if ever an economist deserved a Nobel prize he would be high on my list, along with Richard Thaler of nudge fame-and Behavioural Public Policy, edited by Adam Oliver which is being launched on Thursday at the LSE. I don’t agree with all of their conclusions but they provide excellent food for thought.