Civil servants must be more open about the progress of projects happening within their departments, the head of the influential Public Accounts Committee has said.
Writing for CSW’s sister publication The House, Meg Hillier said there was too little accountability for projects and spending within government as departments were too reticent to share updates on how projects were progressing.
“Despite the Freedom of Information Act, the default is too often not to share information,” Hillier said.
This had become apparent when her committee was examining confidential papers about suppliers of government services, she said. "When we eventually saw them, we were struck by how much of the information was already in the public domain. Government must be more open about its dealings with contractors who are receiving vast sums of taxpayers’ money."
This lack of transparency is exacerbated by civil servants’ unwillingness to share the unvarnished truth with MPs, she said. “The committee gives some credit to civil servants who tell us candidly about the risks in a project. But behind the scenes it can be unpopular in Whitehall to come and tell it, warts and all, at committee. Too often, optimism can override common sense.”
Hillier said there was often a “culture of denial when a project is going badly”, pointing to the Emergency Services Network, a new communication system that has been subject to huge delays, as an example of where greater transparency could improve delivery.
In an effort to increase accountability, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch said her committee would ask civil servants to give evidence on projects they had been responsible for, “no matter where they have moved on to”. At the moment, it is difficult to hold ministers or civil servants to account when they have moved on to other briefs by the time their projects come under scrutiny, Hillier said.
“We are also keen to see project delivery skills more highly valued in the civil service promotion ladder,” she added.
One of the greatest challenges departments face is Brexit, which Hillier said has “skewed the work of all departments and led them to reprioritise work and, in some cases, delay other projects”. She repeated her committee’s call in May for greater transparency and clarity about what Brexit would mean in practice.
Hillier said at the time that departments faced “extreme pressure” to deliver their Brexit preparations. “If parliament is to hold them to account then it is vital that government is as transparent as possible on the progress being made,” she said.
Hillier also called for a more cross-departmental approach to tackling major societal challenges. “The silos of government departments are not best placed to tackle issues such as obesity, pressures on housing or the impact of an aging population,” she wrote.
Prime minister Theresa May’s decision to boost housing within the communities department’s brief when it was renamed the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government in her January reshuffle led to neither extra funding not “any tangible change”, Hillier said. She said the same was true of the Department of Health and Social Care.
“In government and opposition, it can be tempting to shift responsibilities between departments, but the real prize is incentivising departments to work together. We are a long way from achieving this,” she said.