PAC chair identifies government data, contracts and shared services as areas of concern

HMRC, Crown Commercial Service and Whitehall’s use of data come under fire in Meg Hillier’s annual report

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, issued her annual report this week – Photo credit: ParliamentTV

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, has picked out the government’s collection and use of data, contract management, and the relationship between the Cabinet Office and departments as areas to be addressed in next parliament.

Hillier’s annual report, published ahead of the dissolution of parliament in the run-up to the general election, draws on the committee’s work over the past year and identifies areas of continuing concern.

High on her list of priorities for the next incarnation of the PAC is scrutiny of the Brexit process, the Department of Health and sustainability of the NHS and the financial strains faced by the Department for Education.

However, she also raised concerns about the UK’s tax authority and the replacement of its multi-billion pound Aspire contract, as well as its drive to digitise services and reduce demand on call centres.

Hillier said that HMRC “must avoid repeating past mistakes” in the way it manages changes to service provision and its own estates, adding that changes in senior staff – such as the departure of chief digital and information officer Mark Dearnley – could put delivery at risk.

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In addition, Hillier addresses cross-cutting issues facing Whitehall, including concerns about skills in the civil service, poor project management and a lack of important data to measure performance and make decisions.

“There are numerous examples of poor data across Whitehall,” Hillier said. “Too often departments do not seek to collect the right information, or use the data they hold effectively, to understand what works, identify problems, and pinpoint where they need to focus or intervene to best effect.”

She cites as examples poor Department for Work and Pensions data on benefit sanctions, lacking data on the availability of GP appointments, and inaccurate data on land that resulted in farmers not receiving accurate or timely payments.

“The committee does not call for more data for the sake of it, but the right information is necessary for good policy making and ensuring value for money,” she said.

“Collecting data, managing and using it effectively must all be seen as the norm if Whitehall is to ensure efficient and effective use of your money.”

Hillier also questioned the government’s ability to manage large contracts, using as an example the committee’s recent report on the Home Office’s new Emergency Services Network, which found that part of the existing system is to be taken out of service early.

“This news caught the Home Office by surprise and may mean that emergency services communications could be unsupported from April to September 2020” she said.

“The Home Office seemed to downplay the risks to the contract and its being caught unawares by the contractor does not reassure us that the Department is on top of the contract or this project. This could cost the taxpayer dear.”

“The question of who has a grip of the whole system of Whitehall government has plagued successive governments.”

Further criticism in the annual report was levelled at the relationship between the centre of government and the departments, with Hillier saying that “the question of who has a grip of the whole system of Whitehall government has plagued successive governments”.

For instance, she cited the government’s delays in consolidating its “alphabet soup” of cyber security agencies and bodies, and the Cabinet Office’s decision not to mandate how departments should report on the costs and benefits of their information protection initiatives.

In addition, Hillier said that the Crown Commercial Service, which was set up to centralise government procurement, “has consistently failed to deliver quality services to departments”.

She said that although all departments could achieve savings through central procurement of goods and services, CCS was only managing £2.5 billion on behalf of seven departments.

But she added that the issue was also about how the Cabinet Office “delivers on its objectives to streamline, professionalise and save costs across Whitehall”.

Hillier also highlighted concerns about the the civil servants’ skills, MPs’ ability to manage complex projects and “musical chairs of permanent secretaries”, which has seen ten departments have new permanent secretaries in the last year.

The PAC ceased to exist on 3 May, as parliament was dissolved ahead of next month’s general election. Membership of the next incarnation will be decided when parliament returns after the election.



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