Whitehall must review all projects to free capacity for EU exit, says Morse

25 Jul 16

There needs to be a “step change” in the way the civil service does business in the wake of Brexit and other challenges, the comptroller and auditor general has said.

In a speech to the Institute for Government last week, Amyas Morse said the civil service was “over-committed” and should abandon projects that are not “mission critical”.

“We need to ask ourselves, can the public sector deliver Hinckley Point C, a third runway, HS2, a northern powerhouse, nuclear decommissioning, Trident renewal and restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster all at the same time?” he asked.

“All these projects are drawing on the same pool of skills and many of these contain optimism bias that they will be able to meet their skills needs at an appropriate cost.”

He suggested that, if the civil service was over-committed, it should stop doing things, either by not commissioning new projects or by cancelling existing ones.

“Prioritising is about making these choices intelligently,” Morse said. “So we need to know how much scarce resource would be released by a particular decision and what consequence that decision would have elsewhere.”

Brexit, he said, was an “abnormal challenge” and brought with it “a completely new layer of unknowns and requirements”.

Existing Whitehall activities were being denuded of capability as civil servants were pulled away to work on aspects of Brexit.

Should Scotland leave the UK – something Morse dubbed “Scoxit” – the civil service would become even more stretched and could grind to a halt under its own weight.

“We will have set civil servants a Herculean task and set them up to fail. And none of us can afford that. I am calling for a step change in the way we manage the activities of government.”

In particular, every Whitehall department will need to carry out a stock take of its interactions with the European Union and new systems and operations put in place to fill the gap left by Brussels.

Brexit would have to be a priority across government and not just in the new Brexit department, he stressed.

“Let’s use this historic juncture to change the way we manage government and plan on a holistic basis so that ministers and civil servants can look across the whole of government activities and decide what is essential and what is not,” he concluded. “This is crucial for achieving value for money.”

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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