Rob Whiteman calls for more rigorous policy/finance split

The UK Border Agency (UKBA), which was this year abolished by home secretary Theresa May, was “never going to work”, its former chief Rob Whiteman told the Public Administration Select Committee on 17 June.

Executive Director of Government Communications Alex Aiken

By Winnie Agbonlahor

18 Jul 2014

Although he cited UKBA’s sheer scale and constant media scrutiny as reasons for the agency’s failure, he also noted that there were some “deep-seated” structural issues that prevented it from being successful.​ Some of these structural problems, he argued, are common to many government organisations, and could be addressed by creating a clearer division between the policy and financial lines of accountability. There are good examples overseas, he said, suggesting that the government should “borrow some of the transparency from New Zealand”.

Whiteman, who’s now chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, puts financial management at the heart of government’s structural problems; and he told CSW that his involvement in training accountants around the world has given him a “fair degree of comparative analysis”.

Speaking to PASC, Whiteman argued that adopting elements from the New Zealand model could help “create a delivery culture” in Whitehall. There, every department annually and publically agrees with its minister a set of objectives, and its top official is assessed against these at the end of each year. In return for committing themselves more clearly to a set of delivery objectives, departments are given greater freedom in how to realise them – they “have the space to get on and deliver,” Whiteman said.

Whiteman also said that UK governance would be improved if chief financial officers had a formal role in accounting for departments’ spending: currently, permanent secretaries are accountable for both policy advice and spending. “You don’t see that in companies or other public bodies,” he told CSW.

Advice on risk, value for money, cost and options appraisal should be the responsibility of chief financial officers, he argued. And these should all be qualified accountants: the main departments’ CFOs are now accountants, but that’s not the case across the agencies and non-departmental public bodies.

The New Zealand accountability system dovetails with another aspect of its governance: there, departments’ primary function is the delivery of services, and they’re separate from ministries – which give policy advice to ministers. Ian Ball, former chief finance officer at the New Zealand government – who helped design and implement the 1980s reforms which created the current model – told CSW that this split is intended to ensure that ministers receive policy advice “from an organisation that won’t benefit directly from any increase in service provision”. The split is “not always black and white”, he added: “People talk to one another, so there is communication beyond what happens formally”.

Whiteman told PASC that the UK government needs to “have a discussion about what the role of a department is”, and suggested that abolishing UKBA has not tackled the system’s underlying problems. “We have a bit of a mush, where structural ping pong doesn’t sort out the long-term issues,” he said. 

Read the most recent articles written by Winnie Agbonlahor - Lunch with...Jon Rouse

Share this page