Cabinet chief proves a safe bet

There is a rumour in journalism circles that Sir Gus O’Donnell has discovered a roulette system that actually works. If this is the case, then perhaps being tasked with regenerating the Civil Service for the 21st century might not be such a big deal.

When asked about this bank-breaking system, he laughed. “I have always been interested in risk and probability theory,” he said.

“It’s a complete con really – the only person who wins at roulette is the house. What I was explaining to a group of gullible journalists was what’s called a Martingale system, where you bet on red or black. You put 10 down, and if you don’t win, you bet 20 and so on. Eventually it will come red and you win and can start again. The problem is, you need loads of money and there’s always the zero.”

Drop in funding

Loads of money is something that civil service departments increasingly have to do without. Casino pit boss, Gordon Brown, holds all the cards, and O’Donnell’s department alone is set to see a drop of 5% in funding in real terms year on year.

The Cabinet Office is only the start for O’Donnell – he has to make sure that every department is working at its very best. It is perhaps the biggest people management job in the UK.

He has tackled this like a whirlwind. In the first six months of his tenure, he has announced capability re-views for all government departments, a 10-point diversity plan for the Civil Service, as well as a new leadership qualities framework. And that is just for starters; he is consulting on a new civil service code at the moment.

However, he denied this was because he had inherited a Civil Service in neglect.

“It was a Civil Service that was in good shape, but in this world you’ve got to keep trying to improve,” he said. “There is a big productivity challenge – we are trying to become more efficient in what we do, and in the Civil Service we have to keep ahead of the game.”

To drive this, he has instigated ‘The 4 Ps’ – his values for transforming the Civil Service. These are pride, passion, professionalism and pace. The last of these is his primary driver for change.

“If you’ve got ideas and you want to change things, then get on with it. I’ve always been in favour of adding pace. When you have decided the direction you want to go in, the best thing is to go there quickly,” he said.

O’Donnell has even redecorated his office to reflect his vision. One massive and rather psychedelic piece of art outside his office to represent ‘pace’ reminds everyone that “only the first step is difficult”. On an adjacent wall is a picture of celebrations in London following the successful 2012 Olympic bid, representing ‘pride’.

To get the message across, he has been trekking tirelessly across the country meeting civil servants and imparting his credo. Recent trips include visits to the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly and Wormwood Scrubs prison.

The closest he has come to disaster was on a photo call at the Driving Standards Agency, where he was supposed to get his picture taken with a person flush from passing their test. Of seven people taking their test that day, the first six failed. Fortunately, number seven came to the rescue by scraping through.

Drive for change

No-one is immune to O’Donnell’s drive for change. He has already replaced 12 of the 17 main permanent secretaries. Aside from efficiency cuts, in his own department he has transferred 700 of 2,200 staff out to other departments to streamline the Cabinet Office.

“I am keen to get across to the Cabinet Office that we have three primary functions – support the prime minister, look after the Cabinet, and strengthen the whole of the Civil Service,” he said. “There were some functions that didn’t fit – for example, the government car service, which will get much better attention now that it is at the Department for Transport.”

The prime minister will no doubt be happy to hear this – the connecting door through to Number 10 is about 30 yards from O’Donnell’s office.

Future plans

With six months under his belt, what are O’Donnell’s feelings about how things have gone so far?

“It’s been enormously more enjoyable than I thought,” he said. “Week one was very daunting with the breadth and scale of the job, to be honest. Once I have settled in, I will want to spend a little more time learning from other countries, but at the moment, domestic focus is right.”

What does the future hold? “Delivering the capability reviews – using them positively to drive improvement in departments,” O’Donnell said. “Also, following through with professional skills for government. Now I’ve changed the governance structures at the top, using those structures to really make a step-change in joined-up working across departments.”

With O’Donnell’s enthusiasm and clear-cut system for improving the Civil Service, you get the feeling that even if his roulette system is not foolproof, he will still give the house a very good run for its money.


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