Seen and Heard: Lord Gus O’Donnell


Amna Raza

On Tuesday December 11th, 2012, the School of Public Policy and Governance  hosted Sir Gus O’Donnell as part of its Leadership in Public Policy series. He was joined in conversation by SPPG Professor Tony Dean.

Lord Gus O’Donnell is currently a strategic advisor to Ed Clark, Group President and CEO of TD Bank, on strategy, regulatory and governmental matters. Prior to this role, Lord O’Donnell has held many esteemed positions including: Cabinet Secretary and Head of the United Kingdom Civil Service; Director of Macroeconomic Policy and the Head of the Government Economics Service in the HM Treasury; UK’s Executive Director to both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; and Press Secretary to the Prime Minister.

Lord O’Donnell began the conversationby discussing the changing priorities of the government as they move beyond maximizing GDP and economic outcomes to also include wellbeing and the need for happy and healthy people. He stated that in order to achieve new economic and social outcomes, governments must look past traditional public policy approaches, such as legislation and regulation, and begin focusing on new and innovative initiatives.

He himself is currently involved with one such initiative. Based out of the UK Cabinet Office, O’Donnell and the Behavioral Insight Team (colloquially known as the Nudge Unit) use facets of Behavioral Economics to achieve the objective of finding “intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.”[1]

Taking this original approach provides them, and policy makers in general, with a new method of tackling pressing policy challenges, such as crime and obesity. Governments can use influences on behaviors such as norms, incentives and emotional associations to “nudge” individuals into acting in ways that could improve their wellbeing, the economy and society in general. These are small actions with big results. For instance, one BIT trial indicates that changing the wording of tens of thousands of tax collections letters, can increase income tax collection by £200m.

Lord O’Donnell then provided examples of similar initiatives that have been successful in changing behavior for the better; a ThaiHealth anti-smoking campaign, in which young children asking smoking adults for a “light” caused the smokers to rethink their own bad habitsm and a Volkswagen-led initiative in Stockholm, that encouraged exercise by converting a staircase into a functioning piano keyboard. These and other similar projects indicate the future potential of behavioral change as an effective public policy tool.

However, in order for initiatives such as this to succeed in the face of bureaucratic inertia, collaboration and leadership is required. “Future, Engage and Deliver,” Lord O’Donnell stated, when asked about his leadership style. One must imagine a better future, engage others to want to build that future together, and then deliver.

[1] Cabinet Office and Institute for Government (2010) MINDSPACE: Influencing Behavior through Public Policy. London: The Stationary Office.

Amna Raza is a 2014 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds a BA in Economics and International Development from McGill University. Amna has worked with a number of NGOs around the world and is interested in pursuing global development policy upon graduating. 

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