Whitehall churn risking projects and taxpayers’ money, says PAC

6 Jun 23

A lack of experienced officials is putting major projects at risk.

Westminster. Image ©PhotoLondon/iStock

The high turnover of civil servants is putting at risk delivery of multi-billion-pound programmes, Meg Hillier has warned.

Salaries that don’t compete with the private sector, a lack of digital sector skills and late acceptance that projects have failed are among the issues raised in the annual assessment of Whitehall performance.

The Public Accounts Committee chair’s seventh annual report, focusing on government risk management and resilience, investigated the factors that led to the outcomes of the UK’s pandemic response, including high levels of fraud in Covid support schemes and waste and loss of taxpayers’ money.

But the biggest concern was the “disconnect between commissioning and delivery” which has been made worse by the huge churn of ministers and the lack of experienced officials.

Familiar concerns were raised over the Ministry of Defence’s ability to procure and manage major equipment projects. The committee went further with a warning that other departments are also under-performing.

“Too often the civil service is focused on the task, not the outcome,” it said. “There is no real incentive for policy teams to ensure outcomes.”

The Whitehall departments were urged to use the Covid-19 lockdown as “a golden opportunity” to improve their approach to risk management.

The three areas of change highlighted were:

  • Operational efficiencies

  • More effective public services

  • Better preparation for the future

The report adds to the growing concern over the capability of Whitehall departments.

The Institute for Government has warned that secrecy at the Treasury hindered the COVID-19 response. The think-tank has also raised concern over how the private offices of ministers are now run.

Its latest report flagged morale at the Home Office as a problem – with staff engagement the second lowest of any core Whitehall department.

And an IfG review concluded the Cabinet Office in 2020 did not have “structures to properly gather and integrate analysis from across government”.

An immediate concern is fraud and error in the work of the non-emergency departments: the DWP, HMRC and the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy. All lack capacity for financial management and procurement.

Hillier also raised the alarm over the prospect of another outbreak of a disease similar to Covid-19. Civil contingency, preventative security and emergency response. DEFRA was urged to step up work in this area on the basis that another outbreak is a ‘when’ not ‘if’.

Her report’s crux conclusion was that Whitehall departments must end their focus on one electoral cycle.

“There are repeated problems in Whitehall that need better addressing,” the report said.

Read Meg Hillier’s piece for PF: Times of crisis need more transparency, not less

Did you enjoy this article?