The prime minister should appoint a dedicated minister who is committed to reforming the civil service in a bid to increase scrutiny of government projects and address “cross-cutting weaknesses” in deploying specialist skills, a think tank has said.
More needs to be done to address the “pervasive culture of secrecy [that] shields both ministers and senior civil servants from meaningful scrutiny when major projects underperform or fail”, the Institute for Government said today, in a report that also called for ex-ministers to be held to account for failing policies they have overseen.
The “structure and conventions” of Whitehall make it difficult to tackle problems that arise when government projects are not operating effectively or providing value for money, the report said.
“The civil service has displayed long-standing weaknesses in how it uses specialist skills, and in challenging policies that fall short of standards for spending public money,” it said. It cited instances where policies or projects had gone ahead “apparently unchallenged, despite falling short of the standards set by the Treasury”.
Among the “string of delays and cost overruns” stemming from these weaknesses was a major public overspend after private contractors G4S and Serco were found in 2013 – eight years late – to have overbilled the government. And a recent National Audit Office review found that the Department for Work and Pensions could not explain how it decided on the original timetable for rollout out its benefits system overhaul, Universal Credit, which has been subject to severe delays.
To ensure these issues are addressed, the government should ensure its civil service minister is someone who is dedicated to implementing the reforms needed to ensure the civil service has the right specialist skills to deliver policies and that it deploys these skills appropriately, the IfG said. At the moment, the role is held by prime minister Theresa May, but in practice, "no prime minister has the time to focus on this role"
"Successive prime ministers have failed to make serious appointments to this role. To be done well, it needs to be undertaken by a senior minister with the knowledge to oversee the civil service, the interest to make this a key part of their career, and the opportunity to remain in post for a period – say, three to five years – during which they could oversee sustained change," the report recommended.
Given the “variable” ministerial interest in civil service reform, the IfG also recommended establishing an oversight board to provide “independent support and challenge” to civil service leaders. This would provide a forum to talk about how civil service capability is being developed, and whether mechanisms and strategies to help civil servants raise difficult issues with ministers are working as intended.
To ensure ministers are held to account for their projects, permanent secretaries should publish more details on the feasibility, potential risks and mitigation strategies in place for their departments’ major projects, the IfG said.
It also said parliament should recall former ministers to give evidence to select committees about policies they have overseen when those policies go awry, even if they have moved on to other posts.
“We want to help avoid the next Windrush or Grenfell scandals by improving scrutiny of decisions, and by ensuring that ministers take responsibility for the projects and policy areas that they oversee,” Bronwen Maddox, the IfG’s director, said in the report.
We want discussions of risk – particularly for major projects such as Universal Credit – to happen early, rather than after the fact,” Bronwen Maddox, the IfG’s director, said in the report.
The report also called for greater scrutiny of funding for public services. Departments should set out at the end of each spending review any changes to their planned spending, and these plans should be subject to independent scrutiny, it said.
Government and parliament should meanwhile ensure the spending review process is underpinned by “transparent, authoritative information and data”.