Better the Devil: A Response to Gus O’Donnell’s ‘Better Government’

Political QuarterlyFormer Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell wrote an article shortly after his retirement from the Civil Service, criticising the ‘politicisation’ of policy-making. Craig Berry and I wrote a response for the academic journal Political Quarterly (7 April 2014), stressing that O’Donnell’s ideal depoliticised polity is in many ways a neo-liberal ideological construction that seeks to undermine voters’ ability to influence policy via the ballot box.



Gus O’Donnell’s vision of ‘better government’ is presented as a critique of party politics, most specifically the short-termism, selfishness and incompetence of elected politicians. There are few people better placed than O’Donnell to form such judgements. However, O’Donnell goes much further, by calling into question the legitimacy of the democratic system which gives rise to party politics. His article outlines several mechanisms by which the exercise of power by elected ministers could be constrained by a managerialist accountability framework, without addressing the question of who determines the appropriate framework for ministerial performance.

The House of Commons is condemned as ‘too politicised’. O’Donnell also offers substantial praise for apparently ‘depoliticised’ policy-making processes, overlooking the inherently political constitution of such processes. In doing so, O’Donnell claims to be challenging party politics on behalf of voters/taxpayers, but instead seeks to dismantle any possibility of the public expressing a collective will via the ballot box that might challenge the immutability of the market economy.

Read the full article in Political Quarterly.

Image: British High Commission, Ottawa