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The citizen bears the brunt of Whitehall failures

The citizen bears the brunt of Whitehall failures
6 min read

Transparency, openness and greater clarity over costs – that’s what the Public Accounts Committee will continue to demand from government, writes chair Meg Hillier

As conference season is upon us and each party sets out its vision for better government, it is important we reflect on how we deliver public services and how our decisions as politicians impact the people we serve.

Government is complex, and often ministers are faced with a situation that could sink their career. In the cut and thrust of the day-to-day crises it can be hard for ministers to think long-term and have time to avoid the pitfalls of hasty decision-making.

That’s where the Public Accounts Committee has such an important role to play. The committee sees the guts of Whitehall spread before it week in, week out. Over the years we can see where errors are repeated and the wider lessons government should learn. We don’t just look at the numbers, but at how effective and efficient government is.

In my annual report, I highlighted 10 key challenges based on what the committee has seen over the last year. The biggest challenge is Brexit, which has skewed the work of all departments and led them to reprioritise work and, in some cases, delay other projects.

The departments facing the biggest challenges are dealing with a cocktail of rapid and widespread transformation of services and funding; education, health and the Ministry of Justice continue to top my league table of concern.

Transparency and openness is still an issue. In the UK, the executive retains a grip on information and, despite the Freedom of Information Act, the default is too often not to share information. The committee was tasked by the House of Commons with examining confidential government papers relating to strategic suppliers of government services. When we eventually saw them, we were struck by how much of the information was already in the public domain. Government must be more open about its dealings with contractors who are receiving vast sums of taxpayers’ money.

As we approach the autumn votes on Brexit, we need greater transparency about the true impact and costs of leaving the EU. So far the government has come up with a figure for the cost of the political settlement with the EU, but we still only have a hotchpotch of information about the knock-on effect. Some figures unearthed in our scrutiny of government’s preparation would make your eyes water. The cost to small business of compliance with any new customs arrangements could be in the range of £12-£13bn.

In such a politically charged atmosphere, MPs and citizens need to know the facts before we vote on any exit deal.

Too often we continue to hit a culture of denial when a project is going badly. The new communication system for emergency services – the emergency services network – is one such example. Greater transparency would help other interested parties advise and shape government delivery.

The committee gives some credit to civil servants who tell us candidly about the risks in a project. But behind the scenes it can be unpopular in Whitehall to come and tell it, warts and all, at committee. Too often, optimism can override common sense. The natural impatience of governments to deliver can lead to hasty decisions which, in the end, lead to poor delivery. But often by then ministers and senior civil servants have moved on. Accountability for decisions and spending must be better built into the system. I am committed to calling back civil servants, no matter where they have moved on to, who were responsible for a project. We are also keen to see project delivery skills more highly valued in the civil service promotion ladder.

Aside from these wider themes, there are aspects of government policy that are having an impact on the long-term value for money of taxpayer spending. One trend is the sale of capital assets – the government has a policy to sell assets if it does not need them for policy reasons. Sometimes this line can blur – selling of the mortgage loan book of a publicly owned former private bank makes sense, but there are different issues when land and assets are no longer in the control of the organisation that operates the service. There is a danger that short-term financial gain can lead to a less effective service as the owner of an asset is a long way removed from the services that rely on it.

The Public Accounts Committee has long been raising concerns about how contracts are let and managed. There has been a shift in the right direction but we still see too many badly drawn up contracts and poor management.

The committee is keen to examine a major project before it is under way – and I await government taking me up on this offer. Much of our best work comes from the simple questions we ask about the impact on service users – our role is to examine the effectiveness as well as the efficiency and economy of taxpayer-funded spending. As MPs we know first-hand from our constituents how they are impacted, something those in Whitehall are too often removed from.

One of the biggest challenges for any government is that challenging issues of our times require joined-up thinking and working. The silos of government departments are not best placed to tackle issues such as obesity, pressures on housing or the impact of an aging population. The name changes which added housing to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and social care to the Department of Health have not led to more funding and have yet to deliver any tangible change. In government and opposition, it can be tempting to shift responsibilities between departments, but the real prize is incentivising departments to work together. We are a long way from achieving this.

And looking beyond Whitehall, regional and local government is a critical partner in delivery, particularly on the ‘wicked issues’. Money is being devolved as certain responsibilities are devolved, but who is watching the money? Local government needs its own public accounts infrastructure to assess the impact of central taxpayer funding routed locally. I am currently working with the Centre for Public Scrutiny as we urge city mayors to consider this approach.

As we enter the last parliamentary session before Brexit this will inevitably be our focus. But I am also acutely aware that we must not lose sight of the day-to-day issues which government must deliver for citizens. Brexit may be refocusing government, but part of our role is to highlight what is not happening as a result.

In all this we must remember that for poorly delivered services, failed contracts and overspends on major projects, it is the citizen that bears the brunt. Avoiding these failures must be at the forefront of all our plans for government. 

Meg Hillier is Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and chair of the Public Accounts Committee

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