Overstretched civil service being set up to fail on Brexit, says NAO boss Amyas Morse

Major speech by the head of the public spending watchdog warns ministers to stop asking the civil service to run on "perpetual overload"

The "over-committed" civil service has been set a "Herculean task" in the wake of Britain's vote to leave the European Union and must "stop doing things that are not mission-critical", according to the head of the country's public spending watchdog, Sir Amyas Morse.

In a rare public speech at the Institute for Government designed to mark 150 years of the National Audit Office and its predecessor organisations' work, the comptroller and auditor general said Whitehall had made strides in managing major projects and building skills in recent years, and praised the work of civil service chief executive John Manzoni.

But he urged government to get "much better at prioritising its activities", and said it was time to start "deprioritising" areas that were "only really 'nice to have'", a task given particular urgency by the Brexit vote.

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"As of December 2015, civil service headcount was down nearly one-fifth since 2010," he noted. "With such a large portfolio of major projects, I frequently see a 'muddling through' at the expense of a real, business-like, managerial approach to policy implementation.

"A 'go for it' heroic effort is prized at the expense of clearly thought-out strategic prioritisation."

Morse said he felt officials were unable to push back against demands for new initiatives from ministers keen to make a mark during their brief time in office, leading civil servants to start "robbing Peter to pay Paul" in a bid to please politicians.

"My experience of watching the public sector at close quarters tells me the system could come to a halt under its own weight" – NAO boss Sir Amyas Morse

"Imagine the oddity of a new minister standing up in the House to say: 'I have no new policy initiatives to announce because my department is at capacity in terms of what it can do well, so I am diligently carrying on the initiatives started by my predecessor in an effort to bring them in on time and on budget.'

"Whilst my staff and I would find this immensely refreshing and so might the taxpayer, in our current political culture that would be met with a few raised eyebrows."

The NAO chief, who is a former commercial director at the Ministry of Defence and has served as head of the public spending watchdog since 2006, said he "frequently" came across "unrealistic timetables" for big government projects as a result of an "optimism bias" which he said was on the rise.

And he warned that the "major upheaval" posed by the UK's pending withdrawal from the European Union brought "a completely new layer of unknowns and requirements" for departments.

"Add to that our massive major projects portfolio, and my experience of watching the public sector at close quarters tells me the system could come to a halt under its own weight," he warned.

"We will have set civil servants a Herculean task and set them up to fail. And none of us can afford that."

"Perpetual overload"

While Morse stopped short of saying what he felt the government's priorities should be in the wake of the Brexit vote, he pointed out that some projects, such as HMRC's bid to introduce a real-time payroll information system could not be paused without having a "knock on effect" on other government services.

But he said the Home Office's plans to upgrade the communications tools used by the emergency services, the so-called Emergency Services Network, could be viewed "as a relatively free-standing project" that "could be delayed".

Regardless, the government should not, he added, be "running on perpetual overload as a normal state".

"There is the potential for a real mess if this isn’t gripped" – Sir Amyas Morse

"We are going to have to prioritise Brexit across government, not just in the new Brexit department," he said. "Let’s manage the change pro-actively across government rather than as a series of panic measures. There is the potential for a real mess if this isn’t gripped.

"But on the other hand, there is an historic opportunity to change how we do things on a permanent basis."

Morse's speech came on the day the NAO published two reports questioning recent efforts to improve Whitehall's allocation of resources.

A report on the 2015 government-wide Spending Review accused the Treasury of failing to deliver a “coherent, enduring framework for planning and management” of the nation’s finances, while a separate report on Single Departmental Plans – designed to match Spending Review commitments with department's own resource planning – found that some parts of Whitehall had struggled to manage two resource-intensive exercises at once.

Responding to those reports, a Treasury spokesman said: “Our approach is well regarded internationally and enables departments to plan their business into the medium term.

“The government is committed to strengthening financial management and the Single Departmental Plans are helping focus resources where they are most needed, ensuring greater value for money for taxpayers.

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