The Cabinet Office and Treasury could do more to improve cross-government working, departments have told the National Audit Office.
The spending watchdog's latest report highlights a number of concerns ministries have on the coordinating role played by the centre of government, including conflicting messages and "unclear" priorities.
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"Departments identified a large number of cases where different parts of the centre did not communicate with each other, leaving the department to act as go-betweens," the NAO report states.
"They also said that different functions at the centre often made repetitive requests for project information and assurance, and a more coordinated approach would substantially reduce the burden on departments."
The NAO, which conducted interviews with six departments, found them expressing concern that the centre was sometimes unable to “meet its responsibilities” because it had not done enough "to understand the business of the department and its priorities".
As a consequence, the NAO adds, departments believe the "support and challenge" offered by the centre is "sometimes inappropriate for the circumstances".
'Too early to comment'
However, the NAO finds departmental backing for initiatives designed to boost the centre’s ability to coordinate initiatives across government, including the introduction of the Major Projects Authority.
Departments were, it says, “broadly complimentary” about the MPA’s work towards improving the oversight of large-scale public spending projects. There is also praise for the Treasury’s 2013 cross-government review of financial management, which is held up by the NAO as an example of an initiative with a “high level of departmental engagement” which "could be replicated more widely".
The spending watchdog reserves judgement on David Cameron’s decision to appoint John Manzoni – who has stressed the need for better working between departments while budgets are tight – in the newly-created role of civil service chief executive.
The NAO says that while there is potential for the Corporate Management Board, chaired by Manzoni, to improve cross-departmental planning ahead of the 2015 spending review, it is “too early to comment” on any likely success.
The report adds: “This is a large and challenging agenda and the chief executive role has limited formal levers of power over departments, who will be responsible for most of the implementation. He plans to achieve his aims through his own personal credibility and influence, through the functions he manages, through direct relationships with senior staff in departments, and through closer working with the Treasury.”
In an interview with CSW last month, Manzoni stressed the need for Whitehall departments to work more closely together in a time of continuing economic austerity.
“We’ve done an awful lot of efficiency and we’ve got the same to do again,” he said. “But we’re getting close to where – if we squeeze here, the bubble pops up here… you can’t just keep squeezing. We actually now have to do things which are not department-by-department: now we have to join things up.”
Earlier this week, MPs on the public administration select committee also called for the role of the Cabinet Office to be bolstered so that it was more able to "act as an effective headquarters of Government" and help Whitehall plan for the long-term.