Magazine article Public Finance

Mandarin-Tinted Glasses

Magazine article Public Finance

Mandarin-Tinted Glasses

Article excerpt

Sir Gus O'Donnell, head of the civil service, recently gave a speech at the Royal Society of Arts about how well the mandarins of Whitehall could be expected to cope in the present financial and economic crisis.

O'Donnell's answer was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they would do rather wed actually. From organising the G20 summit in short order through to coping with the massive increase in jobseekers, O'Donnell felt civil servants were 'well placed'.

To the unbiased observer, his confidence might seem just a bit misplaced. O'Donnell put great emphasis on the importance of leadership - but one of the first tenets of successful leadership is being open and honest about failures and weaknesses as well as strengths and successes. There was plenty of boasting about the latter in O'Donnell's speech, and precious little about the former - where there is quite a lot to say.

We will leave aside for the moment the litany of disasters and mishaps that have plagued the civil service in recent years - Rural Payments Agency delays; Child Support Agency arrears; tax credit overpayments; lost personal data; disastrous NHS IT contracts... the list goes on. And we are talking here of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money that have been wasted, not to mention poor service in the areas concerned. No, we'll leave these out of the reckoning for now, and concentrate on what Whitehall says about itself when it comes to performing, or not.

The longest running form of reporting on Whitehall performance is, of course, the Public Service Agreements, introduced in 1998 as an add-on to the first Comprehensive Spending Review. Since their introduction, we have had five rounds of PSAs and the results of Whitehall departments can be measured against these self-imposed targets.

The National Audit Office recently 'scored' departments' PSA performance according to their own 2008 annual reports, and the results were pretty dire.

The NAO gave departments a percentage score as to how far they had met their PSAs. The average across all of them was only 45% less than half of their targets. Only two departments - the Crown Prosecution Service and, surprisingly, the Home Office - scored 100% and five departments scored less than 25%. None of this featured in O'Donnell's speech.

The second big rating exercise for government departments has been the Departmental Capability Reviews, initiated in 2005 and now in their second round. When OCRs were first announced, they seemed very much like Whitehall scrutinising itself. …

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