Deal with Brexit first

24 Nov 17

In light of the UK’s plans to leave the EU, the government should now prioritise the interests of the nation above those of Whitehall departments, says National Audit Office head Sir Amyas Morse

Running the government is more technical and complex than it used to be. In terms of driving efficiencies, the easier things have been done. To deliver further efficiencies or, indeed, just to move forward, we are now talking about very large, complex change processes.

There are numerous, complex projects designed to transform ways of working within the public sector. It is easy to get lost in those complex projects if you don’t have very good management information in place and professional skills for interpreting that information. That is why talent management and building professionalism are so important and why we have put such emphasis on it in recent reports.

There has been progress in talent management and building professionalism, thanks to the efforts of John Manzoni, the civil service’s chief executive and permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office. His aim is to give standing to professional judgment and I support that.

Alongside this, the public sector environment is still characterised by fiscal targets and spending restraint. It is delivering large-scale, complex transformation and change programmes while reducing in size and resources. Through our value for money reports over the years looking at capacity and capability in the civil service, we have built up a picture that shows the civil service is often being asked to do more than resource plans allow for.

Projects often draw on the same skills pool and many contain an optimism bias that they will be able to meet their skill needs at an appropriate cost in the current funding climate.

Against this backcloth, civil servants are implementing the decision to leave the EU. Last July, in a speech at the Institute for Government, I said that the decision to leave would cause a major upheaval for the public sector, and described it as an “abnormal challenge”. I urged the government to plan to manage its priorities across all its entities.

Unlike other projects where the usual answer is for timetables to slip and reductions in scope, leaving the EU could have an immovable, hard deadline.

Implementation of the programme to leave the EU requires clear focus and priority. We now need to act in the interests of the nation, not those of individual departments.

Tough decisions and effective prioritisation are needed. This is the government’s role – it is not the role of individual departments. This means reviewing its existing commitments and assessing how many of them can still be managed, and what resources are really required for the priority tasks at hand.

The government needs to be nimble in reallocating its people and resources across departments to wherever they are most needed, and getting people with the right skills.

It also needs to act purposefully in managing risk and take a view about where as a whole it is willing to accept risk, and where to act quickly and decisively to lessen it.

I am by no means alone in Whitehall in recognising this challenge. Let me cite Jon Thompson, HMRC permanent secretary, who said at a Public Accounts Committee evidence session in early November that it was not “credible” for HMRC to continue with its transformation programme of 250 projects given the demands placed on it by the decision to leave the EU.

He – and others doing similar exercises – are right to prioritise.

Sir Amyas Morse spoke at CIPFA's central government conference on 23 November

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