Blair and PAC at odds on risk-taking

24 Feb 00
Conflicting policies from the prime minister and senior politicians are 'blurring the lines' of the modernising government agenda, a senior civil servant has said.

25 February 2000

Chris Butler, head of Audit Policy and Advice at the Treasury, said government departments are often faced with contradictory pressures for reform. He said Tony Blair was pressing for Whitehall to be more entrepreneurial while the Public Accounts Committee was urging it to reduce financial risks.

'Tony Blair is pushing the idea that we in the civil service are risk-adverse,' Butler said. 'But, inevitably, the first time we do something we get it wrong and we are faced with a Public Accounts Committee inquiry. These are just part of the difficulties we face.'

Butler told a seminar on February 22 that the Treasury expected new internal audit and risk management rules to ease the conflicts in modernising government.

The rules follow on from the Turnbull report into corporate governance, published last year. In a consultation paper, due to be published at the end of the month, the Treasury outlines 18 new areas that Whitehall will have to assess for risk.

For the first time, these include Blair's 'innovatory' projects, such as e-commerce – including paying benefit electronically, rather than through post offices – and civil service reform.

Policy and operational areas will also have to be risk-assessed to prevent departments from setting unachievable targets in Public Service Agreements. Butler also indicated that intervention policies might also be covered in the risk framework, with the government increasing its use of hit-squads in failing services.

Under the Treasury's timetable, Whitehall has to issue full internal control and risk assessment statements by 2002.

At the Littlejohn Frazer/Network International seminar Butler indicated that similar work ordered by the Cabinet Office might slow down preparations for the reforms.

'There is some question as to what the Cabinet Office risk framework will bring to the process – but we are in dialogue with the department to ensure there is no unnecessary duplication,' Butler said.


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