The Home Office has rejected a watchdog recommendation to name a senior civil servant to oversee collaboration between the department’s borders, immigration and citizenship teams and other departments and agencies.
David Bolt, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, made the recommendation in a report concluding his review of the department's data sharing with the Department of Health and Social Care; sharing employment, finances and residence information with HMRC; the effectiveness of checks on people who have accessed public funds with the Department for Work and Pensions; and entitlement to state education and free school meals with the Department for Education.
Bolt said the department had been damaged by the Windrush scandal and that it must be able to demonstrate effective collaboration with other departments.
“It was concerning therefore that I found no evidence of an overarching Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) strategy for collaborative working with other government departments, no single central list of current collaborations, and that the Home Office had no means of assessing, or even articulating, the overall value BICS derived from other government department collaborations, or of understanding what more value it could gain from them and how to go about this,” Bolt said when the report was published yesterday.
He therefore recommended that the Home Office appoint a senior responsible officer to oversee all collaborations between BICS directorates and business areas and other government departments and agencies, and a brief to develop a strategy to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of BICS across all its functions.
But in its response to the report, the Home Office said appointing an SRO could hinder accountability as it would “reduce the onus on lead business areas to take full responsibility for their partnership working, and discourage innovation at a local level”.
The department added: “We feel that the spirit of the recommendation would be better delivered through existing and ongoing work to strengthen BICS as a system. This includes strengthening the capabilities of the central BICS strategy team, a renewed focus on embedding a single strategy across the BICS, and continually seeking out opportunities for individual business areas to work more closely together.
“Through this approach, we will seek to drive benefits like a more strategic approach to managing our key relationships with other departments and agencies.”
Two other recommendations – to maintain a list of ‘business as usual’ collaborations between BICS and other government bodies, and developing a standard methodology for managing both business as usual collaborations and specific projects – were partially accepted.
The Home Office said a list of collaborations could be useful but “could only cover BICS’ key, formalised, strategic working, rather than all day to day informal collaboration”, while mandating a standard methodology “would be too prescriptive an approach”.
Bolt said that his recommendations were intended “to achieve better oversight, coordination and value” from cross-government collaborations.
He also criticised the Home Office response, claiming it sought to “obscure” the outcome of his report.
“[The department] has questioned whether an overarching strategy, uniformity and centralisation are inherently useful in a decentralised system, to which my answer is possibly not.
“I would argue that the BICS system would benefit from being less decentralised, at least in terms of its knowledge and information management and how it presents itself to others,” he said.
“The Home Office has also questioned whether the scope of this inspection and the examples of collaboration that were examined present a complete picture of its work with others. I agree that failure to understand the complexity of the issues and to engage with all relevant parties are risks for any inspection and that, had the Home Office raised this at the appropriate time, this inspection might have benefited from other inputs.
“Nonetheless, I believe it has correctly identified a number of systemic weaknesses and it is unhelpful to look to obscure this by suggesting that there is a body of alternative evidence.”