Doing GOD?: Gus O’Donnell and better policy making
The ten policy making commandments:
1. Thou shalt be clear about the outcomes that you want to achieve
Agreed. Policy fundamental number one is to be clear about your objectives.
2. Thou shalt evaluate policy as objectively as possible
Agreed. Fundamental no. 7. Evaluation important – but still an area of weakness when Gus left. The Centre could and should have done more to make good independent evaluation standard.
3. Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour’s policies
Agreed. But even the weak mechanisms put in place under the last government to enable more cross-cutting policy making (PSAs, the strategy unit) have been dismantled under the current government.
4. Thou shall not assume the government has to solve every problem
Makes sense. But need to convince ministers (and the media).
5. Thou shalt not rush to legislate
As above. Under Gus a variety of mechanisms were put in place to stop the rush to regulate – but were ineffective and ended up being gamed by the system. Legislation/ regulation remains the default mindset of both ministers and officials.
6. Honour the evidence and use it to make decisions
Yes. Policy fundamental No.2 on evidence and 4 on thorough appraisal. But there needs to be a system in place to make sure it happens. A role for the Cabinet Office surely in making sure that policies put forward without sufficient evidence aren’t allowed to go for policy agreement – a challenge role it has largely abandoned. And we have suggested giving the civil service a particular duty to make sure that there is a robust basis for policy decisions – would Gus be willing to support?
We also recommend much more attention to policy design – and making sure that where possible ideas are piloted, prototyped and tested – so that what look like good ideas in a policy submission also work when they hit the real world of benefit recipients, taxpayers, over-pressed consumers or people set on milking the system.
7. Thou shalt be clear who is accountable for what and line up the powers and the accountabilities
Yes, yes, yes. Policy fundamental no.6 is to be clear both about accountabilities and the role of central government.
8. Thou shalt not kill the messenger
Agree that internal debate is important. But our policy making research suggested that too many messengers lived in fear of career death and internal challenge was too often not encouraged – whether between ministers and civil servants – who too often self-censored – or between different groups of civil servants. Senior leadership needs to create space for constructive challenge – and protect those who do.
9. Thou shalt not forget that it is a privilege to serve
Good point. But it’s interesting for the civil service to think who it is serving – just the government of the day? Or the wider public interest as well?
10. Thou shalt keep a sense of proportion
Gus’s own description: “Or in the words of a wise, now former, minister: ‘Thank God it’s only a game’”. For some, every bad headline is a crisis. Keep a focus on what the real impact is on people’s lives”.
So what was missing? There was a pretty good overlap with our policy fundamentals. But no sense of what is needed to move beyond nice nostrums and embed it into the policy making process. In Making Policy Better we lay out the changes we think are needed to make good policy making the norm. The subject for GOD’s next pronouncement?