The Sketch: Gus O'Donnell sounds agreeable – until you run the geiger counter

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The Independent Online

And then there's the Civil Service. These are the people who survive everything. Along with radioactive cockroaches, they will be populating the world after the cataclysm. Its head, Gus O'Donnell, survived Blair, Brown and the transition to the new lot. He survives. He sounds eminently agreeable – but let me run a geiger counter over one of his remarks and see if it squeals.

He was talking about the new era that is said to be dawning – "the post-bureaucratic age" that bureaucrats are going to deliver. "There will be failures, but it won't mean we do things incorrectly – it means we're innovating more."

So you see (Minister), in this task, failure is a sign of success. You told us to innovate and that is what we did successfully. We innovated a post-bureaucratic age to reduce budgets by a third and budgets increased by a third. We were innovating like 50 kinds of buggery. It doesn't mean we did anything incorrectly.

Bernard Jenkin (hawkish, compared to his owlish predecessor) runs the Public Administration Committee. Although they managed to get their claws into their guest three times, I'm not sure if they drew blood (I'm not sure Sir Gus bleeds). The chairman – along with Nick De Bois and Robert Halfon – asked him (and more searchingly than he expected) whether he should have urged the negotiators to reach a full coalition agreement rather than a minority government. It was political. He publicised his clever advice. Had he been asked to give advice in the first place?

His plaintive answer was that he felt he had "to give the same advice to all parties". Jenkin's fixed, hospitable stare became quizzical. Right. How was he going to implement these 34 cuts to the Civil Service budget? Sir Gus said: "In a way that leaves the Civil Service stronger."

Cut by 34 per cent, the Civil Service will be "stronger"? It's the most succinct argument for a smaller state any of us have heard and I hope it's picked up and disseminated by all – or both – the "small-state" readers of this newspaper. The head of the Civil Service is a Tea Party mole!

I'm being sarcastic, obviously.

It was Paul Flynn – bowled in late, left early – who made a proper mess of the witnesses. In his resonant Welshness, he recited the stats surrounding the swine flu panic; that it cost £1.2bn in vaccines; that we were warned 750,000 could die (it was 150); that the pharmaceutical industry made £5bn out of it; that the World Health Organisation changed the definition of "pandemic" to panic us; and that the Cabinet Office failed to keep its head – or to recognise any of these failures in its report.

"Assess us on the process, not the outcome," Sir Gus said. Cockroach needs an adverb, I find.