Outgoing PAC chair raises civil service career development concerns

Meg Hillier also slams lack of accountability for Whitehall chiefs after policy failures

By Richard Johnstone

04 May 2017

The outgoing chair of parliament’s public spending watchdog has warned that career development in the civil service remains a barrier to achieving value for money and criticised the appointment of accounting staff without project management experience.

In her annual report, which was published before the dissolution of parliament yesterday, Hillier said that both her Public Accounts Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee had raised “concerns” about skills development in Whitehall.

The PAC was pleased to see progress in developing specialist professional streams and functional leadership in areas including procurement and commercial, digital and project management, Hillier said.

But there was more to do before these were “fully embedded” in working structures, she added.

“The fact that accounting officers can be appointed without any direct experience of running or managing a major project is an area of concern,” Hillier said.  “The civil service needs to better recognise these and other specialist skills in its promotion strategy.”

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Hillier's report highlighted that the number of civil servants has dramatically shrunk over the last seven years, while public services were increasingly commissioned out to other providers. Hillier said this would test the procurement and contract management skills of staff, while the additional demands of Brexit would make it even more important people with the right skills are employed, she said.

“The committee spends a lot of time scrutinising individual departments. This helps us see cross-cutting issues about how government works – a lack of key data to measure performance, concerns about skills in the civil service, poor project management, cost shunting by one department to another part of the public sector and, of course, Brexit. Too often we get lip service about how these issues are important but see a depressingly regular return to the same old problems,” she said.

In particular, Hillier was “increasingly concerned” about the long-term accountability of senior civil servants. “The game of musical chairs starts as one permanent secretary moves on and they all change jobs in the system … Time and again we see failures but not enough civil servants are there long enough to be held responsible for their actions,” she said.

“I have sought to counteract this by calling back any serving civil servant to answer for a former project – the failed Green Deal and the Levy Control Framework are just two examples.

“My message is clear – if you were responsible, you remain accountable for those actions and decisions, in public.”

Hillier is standing for election to the House of Commons again as Labour candidate for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and ​could return to chair the PAC in the next parliament if she is re-elected as an MP and puts herself forward for the committee role.

She said the capability of the civil service to deliver both Brexit and all other areas of government policy would be a huge challenge in the coming years and highlighted that although two new departments had been created to deal with Brexit – the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade – this had not provided an overall boost to staff numbers.

“As of February 2017, the civil service had created over a thousand new roles in the new Brexit departments and elsewhere to prepare for exiting the EU and negotiating new trade agreements,” she added. “Two-thirds of the roles have been filled, mostly by transferring staff from elsewhere in government. There has not been a commensurate increase in the overall size of the civil service.”

In addition, such machinery of government changes “aid obfuscation and blur accountability”, she said.

Hillier also named the Department of Health and the Department for Education as the two ministries where MPs would need to keep a detailed focus on financial pressures.

“In this report I highlight the departments which the next parliament needs to watch closely. Once again the stand-out concern is the Department of Health. The Department for Education is now showing some of the same financial strains that were evident in health a few years ago and is now clearly second highest on our list of concerns,” she said.

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