Press Notice 48, Session 2006-07


New National Performance Office would oversee civil service management

In a report released today, Monday 6 August 2007, the Public Administration Select Committee calls for a new independent National Performance Office to be set up, answerable to Parliament in the same way the National Audit Office is, to look at the performance of the civil service. The Committee also warns that Government efforts to improve management and performance of the civil service lack coherence and may be counterproductive.

While recognising the excellent work done in much of the civil service, the Committee says the results of the Departmental Capability Reviews “paint a bleak picture of civil service performance. They suggest a lack of leadership and serious deficiencies in service delivery.”

Ministers and former ministers have been increasingly vocal in their negative assessments of civil service performance, most notably when the then Home Secretary declared his department’s systems to be “not fit for purpose”. There have also been a number of high profile administrative failures, from the Rural Payments Agency to the abandonment of online recruiting for junior doctors.

The Committee’s analysis of the Capability Reviews shows that “no department seems to be exactly “fit for purpose”, although the Home Office is unique in being well placed in none of the categories measured.” It also recommends that in future, to avoid conflicts of interest, the reviews should be carried out independently of government.

The report recognises the efforts the Government has been putting in to improving civil service performance and delivery, but says there seems to be no coherent strategy: “Compared to the efficiency programme, the Government’s policies on skills and capability are lacking in cohesion and lacking in drive from the centre.”

  • Some of the efficiency measures seem to run counter to the emphasis on increasing skills in the civil service. “There may well be substantial scope for efficiency savings in the Civil Service, but headcount cuts are a poor tool for achieving those savings. Setting numerical targets for departments is crude and counterproductive.”

  • The lack of recognised qualifications for civil servants’ skills makes it difficult to assess either what skills exist in the civil service or how to fill gaps - this can also mean that staff are losing jobs in one area while an expensive recruitment drive is going on elsewhere.

  • While the Committee recognises the value of interchange between sectors, it says “the value of external recruitment (to the Civil Service) may be being over-emphasised. Unless it is targeted correctly, bringing in outsiders can cause as many problems as it solves”

  • Government should bear in mind the impact that departmental and Ministerial “turnover” has. “Government does not have to be an entirely HR-free zone. The Prime Minister must bear in mind when managing ministerial moves that these can have a significant effect on civil service performance.”

The Committee says the Cabinet Office needs to lead and enforce change across the whole service, with a clear strategy and clear commitment from Ministerial level downwards, including training and development for Ministers themselves so they can lead the process in their departments.

Chairman of the Committee Tony Wright MP said:

“It is a sign of the excellence of the Civil Service that we take so much of what they do for granted, but we cannot overlook the problems pointed up by the Departmental Capability Reviews, nor are we convinced about the coherence or drive of the Government’s strategies for addressing these.

“Few Civil Servants will have forgotten the apparent auction between the Government and the Opposition in the run-up to the last general election over who could cut the most jobs in the service. We hear the unions talking about new efficiency techniques actively “de-skilling” people. This is making it tough to convince anyone that there is a genuine commitment to increasing skills.

“What is needed is that clear commitment, from the Ministerial level down and backed up by coherent strategy, to skills and capabilities improvements. Just as the NAO looks at financial performance, we should have a body, working with a select committee in the same way, that scrutinises civil service performance in detail on more than a financial basis. Standards of government will be increased both by external audit and by greater parliamentary accountability.”


Committee Membership: Tony Wright (Chairman) (Lab) (Cannock Chase), Mr David Burrowes (Con) (Enfield, Southgate), Paul Flynn (Lab) (Newport West), David Heyes (Lab) (Ashton under Lyne), Kelvin Hopkins (Lab) (Luton North), Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) (Bridgewater), Julie Morgan (Lab) (Cardiff North), Mr Gordon Prentice (Lab) (Pendle), Paul Rowen (Lib Dem) (Rochdale), Charles Walker (Con) (Broxbourne), Jenny Willott (Lib Dem) (Cardiff Central)

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