By Jess Bowie

01 Jul 2024

Meg Hillier has spent nearly a decade investigating the ins and outs of government delivery in her role as chair of the Public Accounts Committee. What wisdom can she share with officials and future ministers?

When Dame Meg Hillier was a minister in the Home Office, she used to say to officials: “If anything goes wrong at all, I want you to tell me straight away.” She did not need all the answers immediately, she assured them, she just needed to know if something bad had happened.

“Famously, there was one time when they came to me early one morning and said: ‘We just need to let you know that a vanload of blank passports has been hijacked and stolen on the way to the airport.’ I said: ‘Right, okay…’ And they said, ‘But don’t worry, minister, it’s not our fault. It was the Foreign Office!’”

As the minister responsible for passports – a role she held under Gordon Brown from 2007 to 2010 – Hillier knew that passing the buck to the FCO, tempting as it was, probably wouldn’t wash. 

She uses the anecdote as a way of illustrating why a culture of openness is so important to her – among her own employees and in organisations more generally. She has, she says, always encouraged her staff to bring problems (and potential solutions) forward as soon as possible. As she puts it: “I build teams, I don’t bollock people.” Later she adds: “Don’t surprise a politician!” 

New Labour’s ID card scheme

“I think we sort of lost the storyline on it. We were getting it back. But then we weren’t in power long enough to actually get enough [of them] issued for it to be embedded. And that’s another message for a future government: the things you really want to be retained by the next government have to be so well embedded that they can’t turn around. Universal Credit is now definitely here to stay, for example – there are no old systems to put people back onto.”

Hillier is speaking to CSW in the wood-panelled Westminster office of the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. The Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch has been at the helm of PAC since 2015 and a member of the committee since 2013. While expounding her thoughts on organisational culture with her trademark velocity (“I think, because I’m so busy, I just have to talk at double-speed,” she jokes), she describes a visit PAC made to Washington, DC earlier this year. While over there, Hillier insisted that the committee meet NASA. At first her colleagues didn’t understand why. But then, she says, “they completely got it”. 

For Hillier, NASA’s approach to managing risk and “the way they get staff to call things out” without fear of reprisal is a model worth emulating, not least in the civil service. She wants to see workplaces where issues never escalate to the point of whistleblowing – a topic the committee has been looking at – where disagreements are openly discussed, concerns are addressed effectively, and bad mistakes are precluded. 

And bad mistakes – she’s seen a few, as Freddie Mercury almost sang. During her 13 years on PAC, Hillier has forensically picked over the same government cock-ups time and again. Her annual chair’s report, published a few days after she sits down for this interview, pulls no punches. In a section entitled ‘Lasting Lesson’, she writes:

“All too often, we have seen money misdirected or squandered, not because of corruption, but because of group-think, intransigence, inertia, and cultures which discourage whistleblowing. On occasion, the scale of failure has been seismic, such as HS2 or Horizon in the Post Office, or the procurement of PPE during Covid [...] Any incoming government must learn from these failures, and have people within their ranks who have experience of what works and what doesn’t. Without this, my successors as chair of the PAC will be doomed to a cycle of broken promises and wasted cash in perpetuity.” 

Although Hillier hasn’t confirmed her plans, it is likely she won’t stand again for PAC chair. Indeed, according to parliamentary rules, she wouldn’t be able to if Labour wins the next election. It’s not surprising, then, that the tone of her report is valedictory. Before we move onto what the future might hold for Hillier, and how a Labour government might use her ideas for breaking that cycle of wasted cash, CSW asks what her biggest bugbear as PAC chair has been. 

“It doesn’t happen so much now, but when you’re not getting a straight answer from a witness,” she says. “It’s frustrating because we’ve done the work, they’ve done the work. Sometimes there’s a reason, they can’t stray into policy [...] and we recognise they’ve got to reflect ministers’ views up to a point. But actually, they have a direct responsibility as an accounting officer to parliament through us. So when we ask for something, we just expect to get it.

“There’s one memorable time – and [MoD perm sec] David Williams still laughs about this – but he said: ‘There’s only so many ways I can not answer that question.’ I still collect those Yes, Minister moments.” 

Hiller goes on to recall how, a few years ago, one of her children found Yes, Minister. “We watched it together. And I was going, ‘Oh my word. That’s exactly what they said in committee…’” 

What does she think is driving officials to obfuscate? “We have accounting officers who have got to be accountable, but they’re also the mandarins who are there to manage the challenge of the political with the delivery, with the policy, and everything else going on in the department, with the minister at the top.

"We need the accounting officer there too. But the senior responsible owner, or the project manager, or the person delivering the actual service, can be really good witnesses"

“So there’s a kind of alchemy and a set of skills that are pretty admirable. But what we are looking at is often multi-million, sometimes multi-billion, pound projects, and the people who are actually running them are the people we quite like to have as witnesses now. We need the accounting officer there too. But the senior responsible owner, or the project manager, or the person delivering the actual service can be really good witnesses. They will tell us they’re proud of what they’re achieving, but they’re also usually realistic about what’s not working.”

But might some of the mealy-mouthed answers from the so-called mandarins be the product of a situation where civil servants are increasingly being thrown under the bus by politicians who are failing to keep up their side of the ministerial-accountability bargain? 

The environment has indeed been “horrendous”, Hillier says, before expressing her regret over what she calls a “torrid time” in the treatment of perm secs. She cites the sackings of Tom Scholar and Jonathan Slater from the Treasury and the Department for Education respectively, as well as the abrupt departure of Richard Heaton from the Ministry of Justice, as examples. 

However, she adds: “You can worry about the current political situation, but the long term future of the civil service is about retaining that impartiality and that accountability line.”

“Ministers and indeed prime ministers – as we have seen recently – come and go pretty fast. And the civil service is supposed to be there keeping that honest strain while, of course, delivering for the government of the day. And there will be times when they might be uncomfortable with policy, but that’s beyond what we would look at. We’re looking at whether they’re delivering it in the proper and appropriate way.”

The importance of piloting

“On the committee, we’ve looked at piloting and evaluation quite a bit. Both are important. So if you’ve got an idea, pilot it, and then you’ll find out what’s going wrong. You save potentially millions of pounds, because one mistake replicated can be really expensive. [...] It means things can go a bit slower. We’re all impatient for change. But going too fast, and getting it wrong, is worse than going a bit steadier and delivering right.”

If the polls are to be believed, Hillier’s party could form the next government. How could a future Labour administration make use of her encyclopaedic knowledge of Whitehall?

“Well, that’s for them,” she says. “It’s for Keir [Starmer] to decide how or if he wants to use me.” Right now, though, she is available to talk to frontbenchers if they’ve got questions – not least about what government is already doing in numerous areas. “I know the architecture a bit,” she says (which feels like something of an understatement). 

Speaking before the general election has been called, she also points out that between the Labour front bench and the leader’s office, there is “some serious preparation going on for government”. Even before access talks with the civil service started, there was detailed work under way to ensure her party was “on the money, on the structures, on the organisations” that they would have to manage from day one. “So I can, and have been, contributing a bit to that.”

Amid the whirlwind of manifesto writing, leaflet printing and reinforcing of shoe-leather for the ground campaign, the area where Hillier says she can be of most help is delivery. “Because I’ve seen good ideas and policies – whether I agree with them or not – fail. And I know, in many cases, why that’s been the case.”

At one point during our conversation, Hillier says that she sometimes thinks that “practical reality” is her middle name. Just imagine, then, the potential to do things differently if she were running a department... What would her dream cabinet job be?

“I would love to answer that. But they [the shadow roles] have all got people in them, so it would be a bit invidious, wouldn’t it? I mean, I’ve got an abiding interest in the Home Office, because I was a minister there. But Yvette’s doing a fantastic job. And she and I talk quite a lot because PAC covers Home Office matters as well. I’m very clear that those shadows will be in government. I mean, it’s been made very clear that they will be.” 

“My advice to any new minister would be: your civil servants are a fantastic resource – as long as you’ve got an open and honest relationship with them”

One thing Hillier has learnt from studying the civil service up close is that governments – of any stripe – should not fall into the trap of trying to do too much. 

“With my delivery hat on, you just can’t do that many big things all at once. Look at the Ministry of Justice. So they’ve got a prison building programme; probation has been backwards and forwards; court reform; digital transformation; barristers on strike… Show me a bit of the Ministry of Justice that’s just going ‘Oh, yes, it’s all fine. We’re just steady-as-she-goes.’ 

“So that’s one department alone where there’s a hell of a lot going on. If you tried to do it across the whole government, the bandwidth of Whitehall, however extraordinary it can be, would not cope. That’s just a reality.” 

Talking of doing too much, does one of parliament’s busiest women practise what she preaches in her own life? Does she ever spend time not doing much of anything? 

“I try not to work seven days if I can, I try to take some time off one day a week,” she says. “One of the reasons I sometimes get five and a half hours’ sleep a night is that I’m determined to do something unwinding. 

“My new year’s resolution was to read more, so I’ve been reading more detective stories. I was trying to alternate detective fiction with ‘government thinking’ kind of things – but the government tracts are a little dense to read late at night on the tube on the way home. I love John le Carré, Mick Herron, that fast-paced stuff, because it completely takes my brain out of it. And with my teenage daughter, we do watch junk TV together. I don’t remember it the next day, but it takes me out of myself.” 

She also uses sewing as a way to decompress. During the Covid lockdowns it was face masks for friends and family, but now it’s little drawstring bags that can be used instead of wrapping paper.

“There’s a satisfaction to being able to say: ‘There’s something I’ve made today,’” she says. “Because in politics, mostly it’s not I’ve achieved, it’s usually we: we the committee, for example. Usually you’re creating coalitions of interest. And so sometimes it’s just nice to have that thing that you’ve physically produced.”

Why government should have a chief risk officer 

“We had a session on risk and resilience the other week. And, while there’s some important work going on, we feel very strongly you need a more senior figure. In a bank, you can’t operate if your risk officer says to do something and you don’t do it. It sounds trite, but the first job of the government is the security of the country – to protect people. And one of those protections is to look at what risks are coming up. And we’ve had a tendency, partly because of turmoil in politics, to think, ‘The music won’t stop on my watch’. So the House of Commons could burn down. But we’ll put it off for another decade. How long have we been doing that? Forty years we’ve been discussing that. It’s a miracle that no one has actually been killed by falling masonry or fire.”

Towards the end of her conversation with CSW, Hillier is recalling an occasion when she attended the regular ‘Colleagues’ gathering of permanent secretaries. “Yes, I sometimes get my foot in the door of those meetings,” she says with a smile. She describes how she told the assembled company that if they were doing 90% of things well 90% of the time, it meant they were doing a pretty good job. 

“And so they’re all beaming round the table. But then I said: ‘Unfortunately for you, I look at the 10%.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – her exhaustive knowledge of that 10%, and her nine-year ringside seat watching good intentions morph into government blunders, it’s clear that Hillier has a respect for officials that is rare among the political class. As the interview draws to a close she says, by way of conclusion:

“My advice to any new minister would be: your civil servants are a fantastic resource – as long as you’ve got an open and honest relationship with them. You might disagree at times, but you can disagree well with them. And you need to be clear that they’re giving you the best advice that they can. But, you know, there is a really, really good will in Whitehall to deliver for the British public.” 

This interview first appeared in the summer issue of Civil Service World. Read the digital magazine in full 

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