Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 17 of Session 2005-06, dated 6 December 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"If one lesson stands out from the work of the Public Accounts Committee over the years, it is that government departments are masters at spending public money but often far less proficient at ensuring that this translates into better public services.

"Of course, no one should underestimate the difficulty of making large-scale and lasting improvements to public services. But today's overview report suggests a failure by departments to learn from each other's experience. Basic errors are repeated time and again, despite fine words and earnest assurances to this Committee.

"The work of this Committee over the years and across successive governments has allowed us to build up a picture, across all departments and agencies, of government attempts to achieve value for money for the taxpayer. This unique perspective has enabled us to identify problem areas and public spending black spots. Many public services are chronically marred by deadening complexity and bureaucracy. There is a continuing lack of leadership and drive. And government departments still disregard common and well-publicised pitfalls when they approach projects.

"Given the scale of government spending, just a 2% improvement in the use of resources could generate savings of £8 billion a year. That is the same as 2p off the basic rate of tax or could buy 15 large hospitals."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 17th Report of this Session, which brings together the findings arising from the Committee's work over the past decade in analysing the barriers to well thought through implementation of government programmes and efficiency in the provision of public services and how they can be overcome.

Government departments are responsible for planning and implementing a wide range of policies and programmes for the delivery of public services. One of the key strengths of the Committee of Public Accounts is its ability to examine the way in which public money is used to deliver these services right across Government. In the last 10 years, the Committee has issued over 400 reports, and questioned hundreds of senior officials. Witnesses, increasingly from the private as well as the public sector, have provided valuable insights into the challenges they face in improving public services, and have invariably committed themselves to further progress in the future. Subsequently, Governments have acted on most of our recommendations and in doing so, in many cases, have secured financial savings, improved the standards of public services and tackled the risks to successful delivery.

However, whilst those organisations examined in our hearings act on the Committee's recommendations, there is less evidence of lessons being taken forward more widely across Whitehall. In addition, the Committee is concerned that some of the projects and programmes we examine have not always been well thought through or planned as well as they could be, taking account of lessons learned elsewhere. This has implications for the quality and efficiency of public services. The purpose of this Report is to highlight the general areas for improvement, as well as the more positive messages from 10 years of the Committee's work. In doing this, the Committee recognises that service delivery in a modern society is complex and difficult and it does not underestimate the demands on organisations at a time when they are also seeking to make efficiency savings.

Over the last 10 years, the Committee has seen a great deal of progress. For example, it has drawn attention to the valuable steps forward in the use of new technology in the work of HM Customs, to the introduction of an innovative scheme for encouraging emissions reductions to help combat climate change, to the successful negotiation of improved prices for computer software for the public sector and to the significant expansion of 'early years' childcare provision.

In other areas, the Government is now looking to improve efficiency or to enhance its ability to provide quality services to citizens. Last year, the Gershon Review made proposals, which the Government accepted, to deliver over £20 billion of efficiencies in public spending by 2007-08 through improvements in back office functions, procurement practice, transactional services and policy-making functions, as well as increasing the productive time of staff in front-line services. Many of the areas highlighted coincided with those identified in the past by this Committee. More recently, the Government announced departmental capability reviews. The Committee welcomes this development, which addresses concerns expressed in many of the Committee's reports over the years that departments do not have some of the skills to implement policy effectively. The Committee expects the reviews to take account of lessons highlighted in its reports.

Despite signs of progress, however, in too many areas the Committee has seen too little progress over the last decade. In particular, the Committee continues to see cases of:

• policies not being properly planned or thought through;

• improvements not materialising or taking place slowly, despite promises;

• failure to apply more widely the lessons learned in one part of the public sector;

• the repetition of mistakes, even after the causes have been identified;

• failure to exploit commercial opportunities; and

• slow progress in making the most of opportunities offered by new developments in technology.

For many years, the Committee of Public Accounts, through its scrutiny of departments' use of public funds, has consistently highlighted practical ways to achieve better value for money for the taxpayer. The Committee has also emphasised the need for careful planning in order to increase the chance of successful implementation of policies, and urged government to act on the evidence in our reports that departments lack well developed capabilities in a range of skills. Many of the Committee's recommendations have not required radical change; indeed they are often about basic housekeeping and good management. This analysis of just a sample of Reports published by the Committee going back to the early 1990s suggests there are many areas where improvements could be made but also many lessons that could be acted upon more widely across government.

The Committee has identified seven key areas which departments need to focus on if improvements in the delivery of public services and their efficiency are to be achieved:

• planning carefully prior to implementation;

• strengthening project management;

• reducing complexity and bureaucracy;

• improving public service productivity;

• being more commercially astute;

• tackling fraud;

• better and more timely implementation of policies and programmes.

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