Whitehall suffers from ‘a culture of denial when a project is going badly’, says PAC chair Hillier

Written by Beckie Smith on 25 September 2018 in News
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The head of the Public Accounts Committee has lamented a lack of transparency and information sharing across the civil service

Credit: Peter/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Civil servants must be more open about the progress of projects happening within their departments, the head of the Public Accounts Committee has said.

Writing for PublicTechnology sister publication The House, Meg Hillier said there was too little accountability for projects and spending within government as departments were too reticent to share updates on how projects were progressing.

“Despite the Freedom of Information Act, the default is too often not to share information,” Hillier said.

This had become apparent when her committee was examining confidential papers about suppliers of government services, she said. "When we eventually saw them, we were struck by how much of the information was already in the public domain. Government must be more open about its dealings with contractors who are receiving vast sums of taxpayers’ money."


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This lack of transparency is exacerbated by civil servants’ unwillingness to share the unvarnished truth with MPs, she said. “The committee gives some credit to civil servants who tell us candidly about the risks in a project. But, behind the scenes, it can be unpopular in Whitehall to come and tell it, warts and all, at committee. Too often, optimism can override common sense.”

Hillier said there was often a “culture of denial when a project is going badly”, pointing to the Emergency Services Network, a new communication system that has been subject to huge delays, as an example of where greater transparency could improve delivery.

In an effort to increase accountability, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch said her committee would ask civil servants to give evidence on projects for which they had been responsible, “no matter where they have moved on to”. At the moment, it is difficult to hold ministers or civil servants to account when they have moved on to other briefs by the time their projects come under scrutiny, Hillier said.

“We are also keen to see project delivery skills more highly valued in the civil service promotion ladder,” she added.

One of the greatest challenges departments face is Brexit, which Hillier said has “skewed the work of all departments and led them to reprioritise work and, in some cases, delay other projects”. She repeated her committee’s call in May for greater transparency and clarity about what Brexit would mean in practice.

Hillier said at the time that departments faced “extreme pressure” to deliver their Brexit preparations. “If parliament is to hold them to account then it is vital that government is as transparent as possible on the progress being made,” she said.

About the author

Beckie Smith is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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