By Winnie Agbonlahor

18 Jul 2014

The government has found cross-departmental working more “problematic” than improving coordination at the centre, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on 7 July.​

Heywood was giving evidence at a hearing into the centre of government, alongside civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake, Cabinet Office permanent secretary Richard Heaton, and Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

While Hodge noted that there might be a good working relationship between the officials giving evidence, she suggested that collaboration at lower levels isn’t as effective: “If you [ask] some of the people lower down working on things like debt collection, I think [those] in Richard’s department wouldn’t wax lyrical about Sir Nick’s staff and the cooperation they get there,” she said.

Heywood said that while the Treasury and Cabinet Office are “working more closely together than ever before”, he said that “I readily accept that cross-government is more problematic.”

Compared to collaboration at the centre, he said, across the departments government is making “less progress on finding the magic bullet to how we get cross-departmental working right the way down [through less senior grades]. That’s more of a culture problem: people are still more inclined to defend their departmental line.”

Kerslake echoed his view, saying that “old habits die hard”, but that some progress has been achieved.

PAC member Richard Bacon also raised the topic of civil service pay, referring to leaders who’ve undertaken organisational change in order to win the freedom to pay staff competitive salaries – such as chief of defence materiel Bernard Gray and HS2 chair Sir David Higgins. “What is the answer in the rest of the civil service?”, he asked, suggesting that higher wages could be paid if workforces were cut. 

Macpherson said the Treasury is “receptive to arguments on pay for specific areas”, but wants to ensure it doesn’t “lose control over pay across the board”. One approach might be “controlling the pay bill” as a whole, rather than imposing specific pay caps.

Hodge also pushed the witnesses to admit that the Treasury hasn’t yet signed off the revised business case for Universal Credit. Macpherson seemed reluctant to answer, but, Kerslake said: “We shouldn’t beat about the bush: it hasn’t been signed off.”

This admission came after employment minister Esther McVey told Parliament last month that “the chief secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament”. 

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