11 July 2008
The government needs to recruit and nurture a cadre of expert contract managers to combat the lack of commercial skills among public servants, the influential chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee has said.
Addressing the National Audit Office's annual private finance conference on July 7, Edward Leigh said it was 'disturbing' that the PAC still had concerns about skills, given that private finance deals had been a feature of public sector procurement since the
'How is the public sector to achieve value for money if it does not have the right number of staff with appropriate experience?' Leigh asked.
'We need to get away from the situation where, despite the Treasury's worthy guidance, individuals taking forward projects may be doing so for the first time. It's a tough ask… but it is even tougher for the taxpayer.'
Leigh said creating a cohort of people who make initiating and managing private finance procurement contracts their career was 'quite an attractive notion'.
He added that these people would need to be appropriately rewarded for the high level of expertise they would bring to government.
Private finance was likely to remain a feature of the government's procurement policy whichever party was in power, Leigh said, so it was vital that it be done well.
'We have to get PFI right because if we don't get it right we are imposing a massive debt burden on our children and will end up with the kind of shabby schools and hospitals we inherited from the 1960s,' he said.
Skills were also a concern raised by other speakers. Gordon McKechnie, head of Private Finance Initiative policy at the Treasury, told the conference that the issue of public sector commercial skills continued to 'loom large'. He added that there was no quick fix to the problem but the government was committed to continuous skills improvement.
McKechnie added that ensuring those PFI contracts already up and running were being well managed and continued to generate value for money was an ongoing task.
The Treasury has commissioned a survey, to be conducted during the autumn, of how well contracts are being managed.