MPs renew call for government to create chief risk officer role

Senior officials “lack understanding” of the benefits a CRO would bring, despite pandemic experience, Public Accounts Committee says
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier. Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer for Civil Service World

By Tevye Markson

25 Mar 2022

The Public Accounts Committee has called for the government to establish an independent chief risk officer to oversee risks across government, in a report criticising the government’s pandemic preparations.

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm and his Department of Health and Social Care counterpart Sir Chris Wormald pushed back on proposals for the creation of a cross-government chief risk officer at PAC in January.

But MPs have accused government officials of showing “a lack of understanding” of what the role would be and the “valuable insight that such a role would bring”, in a report entitled Government preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic: lessons for government on risk.

Government was “underprepared” for the pandemic, which “exposed limitations in how the government manages risks, especially those that cut across institutional boundaries and affect multiple areas of society”, the report said.

It also “exposed a failure to learn from actual incidents and simulation exercises”, the report added.

PAC members warned that that currently there is no-one in government responsible for tackling government-wide risks.

“We are concerned that, if the government does not learn lessons on leadership and oversight for whole system risks, this may come at a high cost to individuals, the economy and society in the future,” the report said.

“Many of the major risks that the country faces would cut across institutional boundaries and affect multiple areas of government and society, if they materialised. Yet, no-one in government is tasked with forming an overarching view of whole system risks, ensuring that all departments are adequately prepared for them, and prompting departments to enhance their preparedness in the areas where they fall short.”

Introducing the new chief risk officer post – at the helm of a new Office for Preparedness and Resilience – was one of a series of recommendations made by members of the House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee in December, based on experience from the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the government had already decided to go ahead with creating a head of the risk management profession, one of 28 recommendations made in Nigel Boardman’s review of procurement during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, and officials have pushed back on the chief risk officer idea.

Government finance function head Cat Little told PAC in November she hoped a head for the risk management profession would be “recruited and in post” by 1 April 2022.

At the January PAC hearing, Chisholm, who is also civil service chief operating officer, said a cross-government risk role could blur lines of accountability and prompt buck-passing on the part of perm secs. Wormald questioned whether any one individual would be capable of managing the “CRO” job.

The new PAC report asks the Cabinet Office and Treasury to set out how they intend to introduce robust cross-government leadership and oversight for whole-system risks.

The MPs’ key recommendation is to recruit an independent chief risk officer, who has sufficient seniority to provide professional leadership and expert advice across the risk profession but also advise and constructively challenge senior leaders in government.

The report compares the role to the cross-cutting model of the chief medical and scientific officers.

The MPs said the chief risk officer should also:

  • Have the authority to establish strategic direction and coordination and integration of resources to ensure government has the necessary risk management expertise, skills and capabilities to respond to system-wide risks;
  • Work cohesively with functions and departments to ensure risk management is joined-up across the functional agenda and aligns with national priorities; 
  • Engage with senior leaders in the public, private sector and international community to continually improve government’s approach to enterprise and system-wide risk management; and
  • Be equipped with a fit-for-purpose supporting infrastructure to execute this role effectively

The report also criticises the variability in departments’ risk management, asking the Cabinet Office and Treasury to set out what they intend to do to ensure that there is sufficient uniformity in departments’ high-level interpretation of and alignment with the principles of the Orange Book – a risk management guide for government.

PAC has also asked the Cabinet Office to set up a cross-government process to improve how the government learns lessons and applies that learning, and outline how it will improve its use of data to help it prepare better for future pandemics.

MPs also called for the government to set out plans to increase public awareness of the main risks facing the UK and what the government is doing about them; and how it intends to drive greater international collaboration on risks.

A government spokesperson said: “We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and the Covid inquiry will play a key role in informing the government’s preparations for the future.

“We prepare for a range of scenarios and, while there were extensive arrangements in place, this is an unprecedented pandemic that has challenged health systems around the world.

“Thanks to our collective national effort and our preparations for flu, we have saved lives, vaccinated tens of millions of people and prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed.”

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