Whitehall focus PSAs impeded by flawed data, says watchdog

23 Mar 06
Auditors this week called on Whitehall departments to improve the data underpinning crucial government targets amid fears that more than half of Public Service Agreements are flawed.

24 March 2006

Auditors this week called on Whitehall departments to improve the data underpinning crucial government targets amid fears that more than half of Public Service Agreements are flawed.

Nick Sloan, a senior National Audit Office official, told Public Finance that around 57% of PSAs, which are co-ordinated by the Treasury, 'need tweaking or, in some cases, more fundamental adjustments', so that departments can achieve or reflect the precise public benefits they are aiming for.

Sloan, director of performance measurement at the spending watchdog, said that more than three-quarters of the data systems underpinning PSAs are deemed 'broadly fit for purpose'. But a significant proportion of all targets either draw on flawed data or encounter other problems.

Sloan's warnings preceded the March 23 publication of the NAO's second assessment of the data used to measure the 2002 Spending Review PSAs, which apply to the 2003-06 period.

The study assesses data systems for 122 PSAs across 18 departments, plus the government's Sure Start programme. It calls on the Treasury to pay more attention to PSA data planning before launching new targets.

Sloan cited a PSA at the Northern Ireland Office as a prime example of departmental failure in this area. Its aim is to improve the fairness, effectiveness and accessibility of the province's criminal justice system – but its data allow it to report publicly only on the system's fairness.

'That's an example of the mismatch between what departments are monitoring and what the target is actually about,' Sloan said. 'There are many other PSA data systems affected by these difficulties.'

He called on departments to publicise the limitations of the data used to create PSAs, amid evidence that international poverty targets, for example, are easily 'skewed' by data outside Whitehall's control.

'We understand the limitations at organisations such as the Department for International Development,' Sloan said, 'but generally we don't get well developed answers to questions like, “what are the risks you're running with these data systems” and “exactly what sort of accuracy do you want?”.'

Sloan also called for improvements in the way departments allocate responsibility for monitoring data.

'They have done very well at allocating responsibility to individual [civil servants] for the substantive achievement of targets. But they have done less well with requiring responsibility for accurate or reliable data – an individual should be responsible for quality management.'

NAO auditor general Sir John Bourn said: 'Progress in developing sound systems has been variable. Departments must overcome the difficulties and develop performance management systems that allow the full benefits of PSAs to be realised.'

One year, ten departments, £120,000 in missing goods

Almost £120,000-worth of electronic goods such as laptops and mobile phones were lost or stolen from just ten central government departments over the past 12 months, Public Finance has learnt.

The departments of Health, Education and Trade & Industry accounted for almost two-thirds of the losses' value. A total of 153 items, including 115 laptops, 15 mobile phones and seven handheld computers were unaccounted for.

The Department for International Development was the fourth-biggest loser in monetary terms, with £14,445-worth of lost and stolen items. However, if departmental losses are calculated by head count, the DfID is the biggest loser, with around £8.12-worth of items going missing for each permanent member of staff.

The figures were made public in a series of written parliamentary answers to David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth. They reveal large variations in losses .

The Treasury, which with 1,030 staff is similar in size to the DfID, lost £3,700, or £3.59 per staff member.

The Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills lost approximately £7.16 and £5.46 respectively for each staff member, whereas the similarly sized Scottish Office lost just 6p. The much larger Department for Work and Pensions lost 13p per head. Across the ten departments, the average loss was £1.61 for each member of staff.

The Welsh, Northern Ireland and Home offices reported no losses or thefts. Other departments made no estimates.

The figures suggest that at least half of the total losses were the consequence of theft.

Davies called for increased security across Whitehall. 'There is no doubt that most of the items stolen were stolen by people who work there,' he claimed. 'If you look at the DoH and DfES, for example, you can't get into those buildings unless you're a member of staff or you're with a member of staff. '

A DoH spokesman said that many of the 76 laptops that had gone missing over the past three years had been stolen from staff members' homes or cars.

He added: 'All the department's laptops are now tagged with security stickers and forensic dyes to deter theft and help trace items, which has led to a drop in losses.'

A DfID spokesman said: 'The requirements on DfID staff to travel more extensively than colleagues elsewhere in Whitehall results in a higher risk of theft and loss.'

Click here for a breakdown by department (this will open up a new browser window)


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