Meg Hillier: Hampered civil service leads to policy failure

29 Jun 18

The high turnover of civil servants and their limited freedom to challenge ministers is responsible for a lot of government policy failure, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee has told Public Finance.

Meg Hillier said civil servants needed the “freedom to speak about the challenges and value for money” of policies, following the release of her annual report of the PAC’s work this morning.

“Our experience over the last year suggests that turnover of senior civil servants continues to be a concern,” Hillier wrote in her report.

The Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch told PF this morning there had been a “run” of civil servants telling her committee that they “have to say what the minister wants me to say”.

She talked about a fear amongst Whitehall officials that speaking out against what a minister wanted them to do could be “career wrecking”. She said there was a lot of “moving sideways to move up” in the civil service. 

“What we would like to see is a [civil service] that rewards long service in a role,” she told PF.

“[Civil servants] should not be embarrassed to challenge [a minister]”.

She added: “We [the PAC] love witnesses who tell us what keeps them awake at night.”

The report also said: “Rapid senior staff turnover results in a lack of embedded knowledge and expertise in government.”

Hillier mentioned universal credit and the Green Deal as examples of where delivery could have been improved with more continuity of civil services officers.

The Green Deal is a defunct, relatively short-lived government policy that gave loans for energy saving measures on properties.

Hillier’s report pointed out there has been six ‘senior responsible owners’ of universal credit – which is rolling six benefits into one.

A ‘senior responsible owner’ is the civil servant with the prime responsibility for overseeing a project, to ensure it is delivered on time and to budget.

She said the Green Deal and universal credit were also examples of where the policy could have worked better on the ground if they had been thought through before implementation.  

“Ministers need to think more practically,” she stated.

Hillier was also critical of sustainability and transformation plans – designed to get local authorities and the NHS working more closely together across an area.

She told PF the structure of STPs was “confusing” and “haphazard” with people not quite sure “who is responsible”.

“There’s a lack of transparency and accountability [with STPs]”, she said.

Her report was also scathing of the government “selling the taxpayers’ silver”, giving the example of the Ministry of Defence’s sell-off of the armed forces housing to Annington House on a 999-year lease.

The MoD lost out on up to £4.2bn after it sold 55,000 homes to the private company only to see the houses soar in value. 

Hillier said if the government was going to sell assets it needed to “factor in the long-term impact – and it’s not just about cash – it’s about the service”.

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