By Suzannah.Brecknell

11 Jul 2013

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Richard Heaton used his first appearance at the Public Administration Select Committee to give a bullish appraisal of Civil Service Reform progress. Suzannah Brecknell reports.

Select Committee hearings have a reputation for being antagonistic affairs, with belligerent MPs interrogating civil servants who are either harried, obfuscating or both. The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), however, bucks this stereotype. Chair Bernard Jenkin exudes a soothing charm which softens even his most barbed questions, and diffuses even the strongest attack from his committee colleagues.

It helps that the witnesses who come before PASC are often accomplished mandarins, confident enough to voice diplomatic criticisms and side step thorny issues while remaining in everyone’s good books. They fall easily into a friendly repartee with the MPs – one thinks of the run of former cabinet secretaries who appeared before PASC to give evidence on the cabinet secretary’s role last year, sharing knowing references to past scandals and triumphs with an ever smiling Jenkin.

Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and first parliamentary counsel, yesterday joined this illustrious cadre as he made his first appearance before the committee to discuss the work of the Cabinet Office. Heaton was resolutely un-harried and at pains not to appear obfuscatory – if he didn't have the requested information to hand he was ever-ready to write to the committee with more details.

Heaton was candid about some of the weaknesses of the Cabinet Office, noting that the Efficiency and Reform Group needs more project management and procurement skills and acknowledging that the senior team were too slow to appoint key people to the Civil Service Reform team last year. But overall he was bullish – especially about civil service reform, which marks its (just over) one year anniversary today with a progress report published by the Cabinet Office. It may have been slow to get going, he acknowledged, but he is frustrated that the agenda is now “endlessly characterised” by stories about how it’s not happening. “I really think we're beginning to get somewhere,” he said.

While questioning Heaton on progress against the Cabinet Office’s mandate to centralise procurement, Jenkin dug into the long-running tension between Heaton’s department and the Treasury, contending that slow progress on procurement reform is in part cased by the fact that the Cabinet Office imposed spending controls that conflict with the Treasury’s “accepted practice that accounting officers are individually accountable to the Treasury and PAC”. He suggested that departments may use guidelines in the Treasury’s document {ital.} Managing Public Money {ital.} as a reason not to join common procurement frameworks.

Heaton said he saw no tension: “There is nothing in Managing Public Money to stop an accounting offer saying: ‘I can see this spend is not what delivers best VfM [value for money] for my department, but is best VfM for wider public sector as a whole.’ [The guidelines] drive you always to VfM for the tax payer”.

Jenkin politely probed further: if a department won't sign up to a common procurement scheme, what support does the Treasury offer to the Cabinet Office? Heaton sidestepped: “We will roll out procurement reforms as an agreed government policy with full support from Treasury”

Later he commented that reform has been slow not because of active resistance, but due to the “inertia”of large organisations; and while procurement reform can feel like “a distraction to a department that is getting on with its day job,” it “unquestionably will happen.”

Though he generally managed to stay the safe side of the line between candour and indiscretion, Heaton did appear close to slipping up at one point. Asked how he would like the rest of government to view the relative roles of the Treasury and Cabinet Office, he replied he hoped the two departments would be viewed as “the effective centre of government.”

“Now, we're happy to claim the role of junior partner,” he continued. “We're happy to cede ultimate authority in terms of money. We would love the Treasury to be even better at the management finance function in government, but we're absolutely happy to…” At this point it became hard to hear his answer, as the committee began laughing at his comments and Jenkin asked for more detail.

“I simply meant,” backtracked Heaton, “the Treasury are brilliant at spending controls and numbers; we think there’s even more you can do in terms of the micro financial management within government – I know the perm sec [at the Treasury] has kicked off a bit of work on this.” He added that the Cabinet Office is “happy to share the burden” with the Treasury by providing “resources and the thinking and data that helps them to do that”.

Heaton’s first appearance at the PASC bodes well in terms of maintaining the committee’s friendly reputation. It remains to be seen whether his bullish attitude to civil service reform will prove well-founded, but there’s no doubt that PASC will be holding him to account – ever so politely – as the programme rolls on.

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