New NAO scheme to share efficiency lessons across departments

Auditor general says he has support for plan from Whitehall permanent secretaries

By Richard Johnstone

17 Mar 2017

The National Audit Office is to launch a new cross-government programme on value management in an effort to better share the watchdog’s efficiency recommendations across Whitehall.

Speaking to the public accounts committee on Wednesday, auditor general Amyas Morse said that he had briefed permanent secretaries on the scheme, which is intended as an improved way for the NAO to help on cross-government issues such as civil service capability, that morning.

“Although our main job is to help parliament hold government to account, we think it desirable to identify ways we can add value and achieve savings,” Morse said. “We would like to do that in a rather more formal discussion, and I have had very positive responses to that from government.”

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According to the auditor general, there will now be annual discussions about themes that the NAO could bring together from its reports throughout a year for the “Wednesday morning colleagues”, which is the name given to the weekly meeting of departmental chiefs.

This would allow the NAO to provide, in a relatively short time, greater value to departments and agencies across Whitehall, Morse said.

“Although our traditional method is all agreed by the departments concerned, I am aiming to move into something where we have a wider value dialogue in terms of specific reports we have done on the department, and also in offering to bring the benefit of the knowledge we have developed across government in areas like transformation and other things of that sort.

“So we are taking quite a different approach in terms of trying to add value back, and we have done that in response to what we had as feedback from government. They feel we have a lot of understanding about what is going on in government, and they’d like to have more access to it if they could. I see absolutely no reasons why we shouldn’t do it.”

In the session, Morse also told MPs that the NAO would be looking to ensure that a government drive to improve civil service skills in a host of areas like digital, commercial and project delivery led to genuine improvements.

He said that there was “very little between us and [civil service chief executive] John Manzoni in recognising the need to professionalise in a number of areas”.

“The only point we diverge on a bit is how much progress and the pace of improvement and I think the pace of improvement needs to be pretty rapid given the threat the government faces at the moment,” Morse said.

“I think we have done quite a lot of work in supporting John and there’s quite a lot of ping pong between him and us in supporting each other’s message.”

Auditors would push to ensure that the progress was made, he added.

“There was an era of a programme being run out of the Cabinet Office by Francis Maude, and now it is more of a voluntary approach," Morse said.

"There are a lot of good things in doing that, but depending on how urgent things are, is that really achieving results?

“I think both the PAC and ourselves will want to ask those questions: just at what rate is progress being made? Because otherwise what you tend to get is good intentions and not fast enough progress.”

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