What needs to change
Implementing policy should never be separate from making it. Successful outcomes depend on designing policy with clear objectives, creating realistic timetables and professional project planning. Policy that is difficult to implement wastes time and money. Effective delivery is particularly critical for the Government’s most important and high value projects, as this drives efficiencies and improves public services. In the past, delivery of these major projects has too often been poor15.
Too often, overly complex processes hinder effective implementation and create inefficiency. A drive to reduce this bureaucracy is urgently needed. Just as we have undertaken a Red Tape Challenge to burdens placed on the private sector we will now apply the same challenge to regulatory burdens placed on the public sector. We will undertake a rapid examination of all of the regulatory burdens currently imposed on the Whitehall policy-making process. This will include the way in which we consult on new policy ideas, and the burden of impact assessments and how we combine the policy making process with the assessment of costs and benefits. In line with the principles of reform, we want to replace dead process with real engagement and listening to those affected by policies as government approaches new issues, so that our policy and its delivery on the ground are improved.
Successful implementation of objectives depends on robust, timely and consistent management information (MI). Informed decision making is impossible without meaningful MI, and the Civil Service urgently needs to produce much better MI to increase accountability and track progress16.
There are other issues of accountability. Departments are headed by a Secretary of State and a Permanent Secretary who reports to him or her. This dual leadership requires clarity over responsibilities and reporting lines. Accountability for implementation needs to be sharpened17.
How to deliver it
Government’s past performance on major projects has been poor, with around a third being delivered on time and on budget. Much of this failure has been because policy gets announced before implementation has been fully thought through, and because civil servants have not been given the skills and tools needed for good project management. Ministers also need to be aware of the impact of announcing too much detail before implementation has been fully thought through. The Government has already taken steps to improve delivery through the creation of the Major Projects Authority (MPA) which now oversees the Government’s 208 highest risk and highest value projects – with a total value of £368 billion, enabling delivery issues and failing programmes to be exposed early, so that remedial action can be taken before problems crystallise. Non-executive directors with experience of managing complex organisations in the commercial private sector will also continue to provide challenge and support through their membership on Departmental Boards. However, further work is needed.
- Early scrutiny: The MPA will meet Departments’ Secretary of State, Permanent Secretary and lead Non-Executive Director to discuss progress regularly. Departmental Boards will be expected to challenge big, high risk projects early in the process, reviewing plans and giving risk management advice before cost and time commitments are made public and take ownership of the recommendations of the MPA, and building on current Major Projects Review Group processes, and report transparently on progress.
- Ongoing monitoring: Departments currently report quarterly to the MPA on project progress against a number of critical indicators. In future, analysis of these reports and recommendations will be shared with departmental boards, who will take ownership for resolution of critical issues. The Government is also considering how to drive better performance in project delivery through improved reporting on the progress and state of health of major projects and programmes. Government will publish an annual report on major projects by July 2012, which will cover the first full year’s operation of the MPA.
- Transforming project leadership: The Major Project Leadership Academy (MPLA) will train the senior leaders responsible for major projects. In future only project leaders who have successfully completed this intensive development programme will be able to lead a major government project. The MPLA will drive a better understanding of the role of leadership, technical delivery skills and commercial capability in delivery of major projects, building the project and programme management community across Government.
- Significantly reduce the turnover of SROs: Senior Responsible Owners often move too frequently, leaving mid-way through a project. Sometimes, this can enable skill sets to be aligned with project requirements but more frequently it causes delay and instability and disrupts effective implementation. During the remainder of 2012, the MPA will work with departments to ensure there is systematic planning and clarity of roles, linking the post to milestones or key deliverables, and retaining key staff during critical phases of project delivery.
The Government’s overriding priority is to obtain the best possible value for taxpayers’ money in delivering its objectives. The centre of Government lacks good, comparable, accurate and reliable MI to judge whether departments are achieving this, and to hold Ministers and Permanent Secretaries to account. MI needs to be improved both within departments and for the whole of Government18. A common set of data to ensure that all departments are reporting on a consistent basis will enable comparisons of operational performance across Government so that departments and individuals can be held to account. Good MI supports critical decisions, including the promotion and reward of senior managers. It is central to the success of Civil Service reform.
The following key steps to improve MI will form part of an MI improvement package:
- Establish consistent and comparable quarterly reporting that builds on the existing Quarterly Data Summary (QDS);
- Make key MI available to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor and Chief Secretary on a periodic basis.
- Carry out a one-off “red tape challenge” to get rid of unnecessary data requirements that have accumulated over time.
- Complete the work that departmental Non-Executive Directors have been leading with their boards to ensure that each department has a clear line of sight on where it spends money, the value it achieves and the impacts that it delivers. This approach will vary between Departments, but must be underpinned by consistently high and rigorous standards.
The existing model of Civil Service accountability, whereby civil servants are accountable to Ministers who are in turn accountable to Parliament, is well established and underpins the effective working of Government. A wider debate on accountability is happening, and the House of Lord’s Constitutional Committee has launched an inquiry on accountability to which the government will give evidence. As part of this, the Government will look at other models that exist, and will evaluate the potential application of the New Zealand model of commissioning by the end of 2012. This model is one in which there is a contractual relationship between Ministers – who set clear outcomes – and Heads of Departments – who are accountable for delivering them.
In the meantime, there are some immediate steps that can be taken to sharpen accountability and give clearer codification, presentation and understanding of the respective roles and responsibilities of Accounting Officers and Ministers as one of the steps in strengthening the culture of responsibility and accountability across the organisation.
To ensure there is clear accountability for Accounting Officers throughout the development and delivery of a project from the outset, they will be required to sign off implementation plans for major projects.
Collective decision making through Cabinet ensures policies are agreed across Government. In future, where proposals relate to significant public expenditure or are likely to result in a major project, the chair of the relevant Cabinet committee may ask the relevant Accounting Officers to confirm to the committee that they are content that the proposed action is in line with their duties for managing their departments and public money in an effective and efficient way – including, where appropriate, a comment on their feasibility.
Former Accounting Officers will return to give evidence to select committees on major projects and policies where there is a clear rationale to do so, and within a reasonable time period. In such cases, to ensure a line of accountability is maintained, it will be appropriate for former Accounting Officers to be consulted on the drafting of relevant reports to Select Committees.
The dual leadership of departments by a Secretary of State and a Permanent Secretary makes the relationship between the two crucially important. Allowing Secretaries of State to have greater influence in the appointment of the departmental Permanent Secretary increases the chances of the relationship working successfully.
Given Ministers’ direct accountability to Parliament for the performance of their departments and for the implementation of their policy priorities we believe they should have a stronger role in the recruitment of a Permanent Secretary. Lead Non-Executive-Directors also have an important role in Permanent Secretary appointments, usually as members of the selection panel, helping to ensure that there is the right focus on leadership, operational and commercial skills. Ministers already have involvement in the recruitment process but we believe there is a case to go further. We will therefore consult the Civil Service Commission on how the role of the Secretary of State can be strengthened in the recruitment process of Permanent Secretaries.
Ministers should discuss regularly with their Permanent Secretary the business requirement and priorities of the Department, including whether there needs to be a change or strengthening of personnel. Normally new appointments will be made from within the permanent Civil Service or by open recruitment. But, as now, where the expertise does not exist in the Department, and it is not practicable to run a full open competition, Ministers should be able to ask their Permanent Secretaries to appoint a very limited number of senior officials, for specified and time-limited executive/management roles. In such cases the Civil Service Commission’s approval would be required and they would need to be satisfied that the individuals concerned have the appropriate skills and that they are appointed for their abilities and knowledge rather than for any party political background. These appointees would be subject to the Civil Service Code, and thus politically restricted.
- National Audit Office (May 2012), Assurance of major projects. Para 2: “Government must find ways to avoid repeating the poor performance which has led to previous high profile project failures.”
- Institute for Government (May 2012), Improving decision making In Whitehall: effective use of management information. Page 5:… the historic weakness of Whitehall in producing and using such management information (MI) remains a focus of concern for bodies like the National Audit Office (NAO).
- Margaret Hodge MP (March 2012), PAC Chair’s keynote speech ‘Accountability in today’s Public Services’ – “Of course ministers are responsible and accountable for the policies they pursue. But civil servants are responsible for the execution of these policies and should, as the IPPR study argued, also be accountable for them.”
- Institute for Government (May 2012), Improving decision making in Whitehall: effective use of management information