Cabinet Office and Treasury urged to do more to boost departmental collaboration

The Public Accounts Committee has called for financial and data levers to be pulled to support cross-government working and help address ‘complex societal issues cannot be solved in departmental silos’

Watchdog MPs have called on HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office to up their game on driving cross-government working, with the finance department in particular urged to flex its budgetary muscle to boost collaboration.

Combatting climate-change, delivering on ministers’ levelling-up pledges, and meeting the nation’s health and social care needs are all areas where more than one department has an important role – even when there is a clear lead department.

HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office have a shared responsibility for identifying where cross-government working helps deliver objectives, as well as supporting and monitoring progress.

In a just-published report, members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee acknowledge Treasury and Cabinet Office successes in identifying barriers to more widespread cross-government working, such as inter-departmental data-sharing and poorly-understood ministerial priorities.

But MPs call for a step-change in efforts to analyse the pros and cons of different models of cross-government working so that departments can be better supported with future endeavours – including making it mandatory for departmental business cases to “clearly demonstrate a link to the relevant cross-cutting aim they support” for Treasury approval.

The PAC report noted that HM Treasury recently developed guidance to encourage joint bids at spending rounds, but it said the department had conceded it was “disappointing” that only 28 joint bids had been submitted for the last Spending Review. It said the Treasury also recognised that more would need to be done to encourage joint bids ahead of the next review – including making more top-down requests.

The report, which follows a National Audit Office lessons-learned publication on cross-government working last summer, also urges the Cabinet Office to publish departments’ Outcome Delivery Plans along with their plans to deliver the cross-cutting outcomes the ODPs contain “to improve transparency”. First introduced in 2021, the new-style plans require each department to set out their priorities and objectives for the coming year in four key areas, including ‘innovation, technology and data’, as well as ‘workforce, skills and location’, ‘delivery, evaluation and collaboration’, and ‘sustainability’.

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Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier said it is not always clear which departments are involved in delivering policies that cut across departmental boundaries, which was why the Cabinet Office should put the information into the public domain – along with the progress made against them.

“So many important government projects are dependent on Whitehall working in harmony with itself. Yet so often difficulties with cross-government working are precisely what is hindering these projects and the benefits for citizens,” she said. “While departments are rightly focused on their own policy areas, complex societal issues cannot be solved in departmental silos. Both the Treasury and Cabinet Office have made good progress in naming the problem by identifying the barriers preventing good working across government. The government must now continue the process of toppling these barriers.”

Among their recommendations, PAC members called on the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury to work with the Evaluation Taskforce and the analysis function to identify the key data needed to deliver, monitor and evaluate cross-government projects – and help departments to collect the data and have the analytical capability to interpret it.

MPs also said the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury should publish lessons learned from the £600m Shared Outcomes Fund, which was created in 2019 to bankroll innovative ways of working across the public sector, with a view to evaluating the potential for some of those projects to be scaled up.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the government is committed to ensuring departments are aligned and supported in order to deliver major cross-cutting policies.

“This includes making sure there is more effective collaboration such as through better data evaluation through working closely with the Evaluation Taskforce, improving join-up in spending decisions so departments share the risks and the benefits to achieve better value for money, and transforming the back-office across government with departments working together in the shared-services centres,” the spokesperson said. “We have also made £600m available since 2019 to incentivise departments to work collaboratively across challenging policy areas.”

Jim Dunton

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