Whitehall value for money incentives are weak, says NAO

23 Feb 16

Departmental accounting officers have more incentives to keep ministers sweet than they do to raise concerns and safeguard taxpayers’ money, the National Audit Office has warned.

The NAO said accounting officers’ accountability to Parliament may be being undermined by a shift in emphasis towards satisfying ministers and away from ensuring the value for money of new policies or decisions, the incentives for which are weak in comparison.

Amayas Morse, head of the NAO, warned that accounting officers’ considerations of value for money “rise steadily into the air” in the face of the growing weight of their duty to execute policy and support ministers.

He noted that accounting officers have always had to balance their various responsibilities, these ministerial and policy goals “have come to weigh more heavily”.

Morse highlighted some factors that are “pressing down on the ‘ministerial end’ of the see-saw further”. They include: the influence of special advisers; greater ministerial involvement in specifying the detail and timing of policy implementation, meaning accounting officers are held responsible for decisions not directly under their control; and a bigger role for ministers in the selection of civil servants appointed to senior posts.

The auditors also found that the essentials of ensuring accountability in some areas of government seem to be an “afterthought”, and that more transparency is needed to create a robust and accountable system that effectively safeguards taxpayers’ money.

A number of safeguard mechanisms that have been put in place are not used effectively, the NAO said.

It flagged formal ministerial directions as one – this is a way for an accounting officer to highlight concerns about value for money by requesting a written direction to proceed in spending from the secretary of state.

But the auditors found that projects where there were clear value for money concerns, such as the FiReControl project which was cancelled in 2011 at a cost of £635m and an £11.4bn national programme for IT in the NHS, were not subject to directions.

Similarly, while the NAO said the creation of accountability system statements was a positive development, they are often incomprehensive and “little more than a compliance exercise”.

The NAO also noted that the Treasury has not “asserted its own key role in setting the overall framework for accounting officer accountability” or providing clarity on what it expects from them.

The auditors’ recommendations include a new requirement for accounting officers to provide positive, on-the-record assurance ahead of key implementation decisions to be introduced by the Treasury.

“This would help ensure that appropriate, informed judgements are made before public resources are committed,” the NAO said.

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