UK Treasury and Cabinet Office urged to help senior officials stand up to ministers
Britain’s public spending watchdog has called on the Treasury and Cabinet Office to help permanent secretaries stand up to ministers over the poor use of the taxpayer’s pound after it found that incentives for officials to please politicians are greater than those associated with prioritising value for money.
Departmental accounting officers (AOs) – normally the permanent secretaries, who are personally responsible and accountable to Parliament for managing their departments including its use of public money and stewardship of assets, “appear to lack confidence to challenge ministers where they have concerns about the feasibility or value for money of new policies or decisions,” according to a report released by the National Audit Office (NAO) today.
The report argues that “standing up to ministers is seen as damaging to a civil servant’s career prospects”, following a decade-long shift “towards political drivers.”
To counter-balance this shift, the NAO said the Treasury should “provide stronger leadership to AOs across government, to fulfil its lead role as the guardian of overall government accountability” by acting “as a critical friend to help AOs develop their accountability systems.”
It called on the Treasury to introduce a new requirement on AOs to provide “positive assurance about regularity, propriety, feasibility and value for money ahead of key implementation decisions” and for a “more explicit sign-off by AOs at certain implementation stages” of major projects.
The report also recommends that the Cabinet Office should put in place “specific measures to change incentives for permanent secretaries to emphasise their AO responsibilities, alongside their duty to ministers.”
Senior officials, should, according to the report, “take firmer ownership of the whole systems of accountability for which they are responsible.”
Overall, the NAO concludes that a “robust, accountable system of decision-making, that safeguards taxpayers’ money effectively, needs much more transparency than is currently the case.”
NAO chief Amyas Morse said “the ever-increasing influence of special advisers, and ministers’ greater involvement in policy implementation and civil service appointments, is pressing down on the ‘ministerial’ end of the see-saw further and further, while considerations of value for money and public value rise steadily into the air.”
Julian McCrae, deputy director of the Institute for Government think-tank, said: “Today’s NAO report is a reminder of the important issue of accountability, which has dogged successive administrations.
“While this government has overseen some positive developments, such as making senior civil servants more clearly accountable to Parliament on major projects, more needs to be done.
“Ministers, special advisers and permanent secretaries must work together to understand each other’s roles and work together more effectively.
“The question of who is responsible for what in government has been fudged so many times, and in so many high-profile cases, that trust in the system has all but broken down. When things go right or wrong, it must be made clearer who is responsible and what are the consequences for that failure or success.”
A government spokesman said: “The government is committed to delivering value for every pound of taxpayer’s money that we spend, and doing more with less.
“Over the last Parliament we made real progress – spending on public administration fell by 40% while public satisfaction with local services increased, and crime was down by a quarter.
“The recent Spending Review set out the next stage in our plan, to continue doing more with less while getting Britain back into surplus by 2019/20.
“The government has also introduced far-reaching reforms to increase accountability and transparency over our spending plans, including publishing the ‘Whole of Government Accounts’ annually and ensuring that senior civil servants in charge of major public projects can be called before Parliament.
“It is disappointing that the NAO have chosen not to reflect the full facts in their report which has been published today.”
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