Magazine article Management Today

An Open Letter to David Davis

Magazine article Management Today

An Open Letter to David Davis

Article excerpt

The powers of persuasion of the Public Accounts Committee could be used more effectively if it looked forward as well as acting in retrospect

To David Davis, chairman, Public Accounts Committee: It is unusual for a member of the House of Commons to engage in direct contact with your distinguished committee but you may like to consider an opportunity missed. In 1982, the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, as it was then, invited me to give evidence about the management system I introduced at the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Cabinet Office.

The committee, among its recommendations, concluded 'The Management Information System for Ministers' (MINIS), or its clear equivalent, should be adopted in all departments and, as appropriate, in other public-sector bodies.' The Government responded in September 1982 and agreed 'The Government is working for a general improvement in management and therefore in management information. The ground they cover should include that covered by MINIS, where they should differ from it only to the extent to which they reflect genuine differences in the roles and responsibilities of departments. The Government expects departments... to establish management systems which, like MINIS, provide the information needed to make and maintain a proper distribution of resources in order to achieve objectives, in sufficient detail to identify the costs involved in carrying out particular tasks.'

To the best of my knowledge that was it. Certainly, by the time I reached the Cabinet Office and was in a position to investigate the matter myself, the position remained, to put it mildly, patchy. Hence my letter to you.

I realise, of course, that the practice of the Public Accounts Committee is essentially retrospective. The groundwork is undertaken by Sir John Bourn, the comptroller and auditor-general, who casts a beady eye on the public accounts looking for the cock-ups. These are duly reported to your committee, and permanent secretaries, as the accounting officers of the departments concerned, are commanded to attend upon you. No one should doubt the effectiveness of the process. I have seen grown men tremble at the mere prospect of the questioning to which they might be subjected. Senior civil servants live in awe of your summons. But I think this weapon of persuasion is used less effectively than it could be. It is essentially a power of retrospection. You count the corpses and turn over the detritus of public failure. An important responsibility, of course, but how much more effective if your committee also took upon itself the power to look forward. …

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