On the Politics Show, Sunday 12 July 2009, Jon Sopel interviewed Sir Gus O'Donnell
Sir Gus O’Donnell
Q: Sir Gus O'Donnell reporting and Sir Gus is with me now. There's maybe a second career there as a TV reporter if the Civil Service goes wrong?
SIR GUS: Thank you very much. I think I'll stick to the Civil Service.
Q: You talked in the film there about the fact that we are you know clearly facing much more straitened times. How do you deal with that? Is it that you cut across the board or does government reduce what it does?
SIR GUS: I think civil servants have to be ready to deal with a much tighter public expenditure situation so we all need to think about efficiencies. The challenges of doing that will be quite immense for us but I think one of the ways into it is to think about prevention rather than cure, so if you take issues like ageing, obesity, climate change, all of the things we're focusing on are can we, I mean in that film there's a health area where we're trying to help people lead independent lives, keep them out of hospital, fancy new techniques which monitor whether they've left the oven on, all those sorts of things, which ensure that we will spend less in the future so we will have to deliver more with less. You're absolutely right.
Q: Yeah I, I went to Civil Service Live and one of the things that senior civil servants were saying was why are we telling people how to live their lives? Why is the Department for Childrens, Schools and Families producing a cookbook? Why are we telling people about their carbon footprint and what to eat and what not to eat? Isn't that the nanny state where maybe if you reduce that role, you'd save billions?
SIR GUS: I'm afraid not. If you think about the consequences of all of those actions, think about the consequences of obesity in terms of say diabetes, all we're trying to do for example in the Change for Life example, is to give people the information so they can prevent those future things, so prevention is enormously more cost-efficient than cure.
Q: But does the state need to be telling us whether we've left the oven on and how to avoid it, and you know how to cook spaghetti bolognese?
SIR GUS: If you have ageing parents with dementia, and you want them to lead independent lives which is what they want, if we can use new technology to help them achieve that goal, and thereby keep them out of very expensive hospitals, then that I think is exactly the way forward for government, for public services.
Q: And I gather you've been looking at a Canadian example where they were facing economic difficulties and were running the same sort of deficits that we've got here, and were discussing the impact of cuts of 20% on staff? What would happen?
SIR GUS: Well we, we - it will obviously be for ministers to decide on the allocation of public spending. What we need to do as an efficient civil service that's ready to give honest objective advice to ministers, impartial advice, that we need to think through all the options and give them some realistic choices to make.
Q: Yeah, and you could do that without really slashing public services?
SIR GUS: Like I say, the more we can work on efficiencies, use new technology - I mean if I give you an example, when in the old days you would have gone to the post office to get, renew your car tax, you'd have had to sort out your MOT certificate, your log book, your insurance, all of those things, queue up in the post office with a cheque. Now you can do it online or by phone, takes you two or three minutes, much more efficient better public services for you and much cheaper, better value for money for the taxpayer.
Q: What about the size of the Civil Service? Sir Digby Jones who was one of the former head of the CBI and government of all the talents, one of the goats that Gordon Brown brought in who said that the whole system is designed to take the drive and initiative out of a junior minister. The job could be done with half as many civil servants.
SIR GUS: He also said that we were the best civil service in the world, but in terms of efficiency, we need to keep striving to achieve this as, to be as efficient as possible. In fact civil service numbers have been declining for quite some time. Our share of total public sector employment is actually at a record low so you know we've been doing that. Recently we've been employing more people in Jobcentre Plus because they're taking fifty thousand interviews a day, to actually try and get people back into work as quickly as possible, and that's again another example of prevention. The last two recessions we ended up with people going into long-term unemployed, going onto incapacity benefit. If we can get people back into jobs, and there are ten thousand new vacancies a day registered at Jobcentre Plus, we will save the taxpayer a lot of money and help those people re, rebuild their lives.
Q: And you talk about efficiencies that you need to introduce. How efficient is it, the endless re-naming of government departments? We used to have a Department for Education, we now have the Department for Cushions and Soft Furnishings I think the civil servants call it because they can never remember the right way round that it's Children, Schools and Families. We had two years ago the heralding of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills which has been killed off two years later. So lots of letterheads, lots of nameplates all changing all the time.
SIR GUS: Well ministers decide and we're a very flexible civil service, one of the things we have to be.
Q: It's wasteful isn't it?
SIR GUS: We have to deliver what ministers want. Basically I would say there are always short-term costs when you set up ministries and there are long-term benefits, you hope, but whatever kind -
Q: But one which lives for less than two years!
SIR GUS: Wherever you set the boundaries, there will be cross-over issues. The thing that I concentrate on, would concentrate on is those, we need to get better at working across those boundaries and one practical suggestion I have is that we might actually want to allocate money towards those cost-cutting issues so you don't have the arguments about how these things are funded.
Q: OK let's talk about - there's going to be an election within a year's time. In the 1960s and 70s governments were changing every four or five years between Labour and Conservative. I think you're one of the longest-serving civil servants having been there for thirty years and have seen one change of government in '97. How does the civil service prepare?
SIR GUS: Basically it's one of our core values. You know we have honesty, objectivity, integrity and the last one, impartiality. It is our job to work for the government of the day and so that means working for Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, and we need to do those preparations just to be sure that we're ready for whoever you, the British public, elect and that's core to our civil service values over the last 150 years.
Q: And I know you seek to stay out of the political dogfight but sometimes you're dragged into it and George Osborne is insisting that the Tories wanted to see a database but had been denied that opportunity. He said they'd requested sight of a combined online information system at two meetings but were rejected. Is that true?
SIR GUS: What we do in these discussions with the opposition is the Prime Minister wrote a letter to the leaders of the opposition parties saying that these talks could take place from the 1st of January laying down the terms for those. That's standard process, that's been going on but what's clear about it and what I've, I've said very clearly is that my discussions with the opposition, I am going to keep private. I do not tell the Prime Minister what's going on so I'm afraid, John, I'm not going to tell you either.
Q: Yes but Lord Mandelson has said that decisions were taken by you on this.
SIR GUS: I, in that sense absolutely right. I determine within the context of the Prime Minister's letter, I ensure that those discussions are, prepare the civil service to be ready for a change of administration. That's what we're doing but I make them absolutely private and I never feed back from those discussions to the Prime Minister. So I'm not going to feed back to anybody else either.
Q: No no no I understand and I'm not asking for the contents of private meetings but I just want to clarify whether they are going to be given access to this online database.
SIR GUS: That's a decision we'll need to think about but basically -
Q: Whose decision is it, just as -
SIR GUS: There is a lot of information out there already and we will try as best we can to ensure that the opposition are prepared and the civil service are prepared for whatever decision is made by the British electorate at the next election.
Q: Sure, you say we. Who is we?
SIR GUS: The civil service, myself and my permanent secretary colleagues. So they will all meet with their shadow ministers.
Q: Just to clarify, so that's not a decision for the Prime Minister or ministers, that is purely a civil service decision about access to --?
SIR GUS: We work within the context of the letter that the Prime Minister sent to the leaders of the opposition which laid out the framework.
Q: OK. I just want to touch one other subject if I may, Sir Gus, and that is in the film there we saw you out in Afghanistan, recorded a little while ago. It's been another terrible week. Can the civil service say that it has done everything that it possibly could do to protect British servicemen's lives out there, because there is a raging controversy over equipment and the number of men?
SIR GUS: Absolutely. And the civil service's job I think is - and that's why I was going out there - is to see how it's working on the ground, is I wanted to go there to see how all of the civil servants are operating with the military because I think a lot of people are focused on the military and these losses that we've seen recently are absolutely tragic and it's very important that we get all the equipment that's needed for, and asked for. I absolutely understand that. But you need to remember that the long-term solution in Afghanistan is creating a sustainable Afghan economy and when I went out to Helmand, I was seeing not just the military but actually the civil servants working for the Department for International Development who were there going out in the space created by the military to talk to the farmers about you know converting them from growing poppy to growing wheat, a more sustainable economy, so we need to get development, we need to help on getting kids into schools, all of those things and that's working. A lot, you know five million more children in school now than there were about five years ago.
Q: OK. Sir Gus O'Donnell, thanks very much for being with us and having done your first TV interview, grateful to you, thanks very much.
SIR GUS: Thank you.
END OF DISCUSSION
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