01 August 2008
The Home Office remains under pressure to improve its performance, permanent secretary Sir David Normington has told Public Finance.
The Home Office's second Departmental Capability Review showed it had made good progress in overcoming the problems that left it languishing at the bottom of the Whitehall league table when it was first externally evaluated in 2006.
The recently published 2008 review revealed there were no longer any areas of serious concern at the department. Of the ten indicators that make up the capability review, seven had shown improvement, with four improving by two places.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said the department had 'turned a corner', and there were also plaudits from Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, who said it had 'improved quite dramatically'.
Normington, who has overseen this improvement, said it was good news that successes had been recognised but the department was not content to rest on its laurels.
'What the capability review said is the job is not done, the job is never done,' Normington told PF in an interview on July 30. He added that the review team expected the department to keep up the momentum and embed changes, particularly with regard to financial improvement – one of the big challenges and 'a job that we haven't finished'.
The Cabinet Office is considering how a third round of DCRs might function and whether the inspection criteria should remain as they are or be made more stretching. But the Home Office is expecting a repeat visit in a year's time to take stock of how well improvement has bedded in.
Normington said: 'There's no intention to let up on the process because, in a way, it's worked. It's held our feet to the fire. We knew they were coming back and it gave us a deadline. We couldn't afford for this to be a failure. It's been hard work and we've been very focused on the early summer when we knew [the review team] were coming back.'
Financial performance was singled out as encapsulating the turnround in performance at the Home Office. In 2006, shortly before the first review was published, the National Audit Office disclaimed the department's accounts. Since then, the Home Office has filed clean accounts and this year also met the Treasury's target of signing them off before Parliament's summer recess.
'It's just one thing in many, but for us it has a sort of symbolism: that's where we were in 2006 and that's where we are in 2008,' Normington said. 'It is an interesting vignette of progress.'
Helen Kilpatrick, finance and commercial director general at the department, said the progress on accounts was just the 'tip of the iceberg'.
'The reason the 2004/05 accounts were disclaimed in 2006 was that the NAO said it couldn't place any reliance on the internal control framework,' she said.
'And so it's not just having someone who can draw up a set of books, it's fixing all the basic systems and procedures in the Home Office, throughout the business, that come together as a set of accounts… It's a work in progress, but we've got far enough for the auditors to have confidence in us now.'
Getting the right people into the right finance jobs was still an area under development for the Home Office, Kilpatrick added.
'We still need to raise the skills of financial managers out in the business, but having up-skilled and having capability at the centre of our financial strategy is what will enable us to continuously improve now.' Kilpatrick said the Home Office was looking everywhere it could for good finance staff, including local government and the private sector.
Work is also under way, through the National School of Government in conjunction with CIPFA, to train civil servants into finance experts through a fast-stream course.
Normington added: 'It is a very competitive market. We have to grow more of our own [finance professionals] longer term. We can't always go out into that market and compete for these skills because it's too expensive and they're quite scarce. We want a better balance, but building your own capability takes some time.'
The Home Office's 2008 capability review found that the department had delivered all of its Public Service Agreements as well as meeting all operational and efficiency targets.
The loss of responsibility for prisons and probation to the Ministry of Justice had helped sharpen the Home Office's sense of focus, while leadership was found to be strong and collective.