6 questions a PAC should really ask

  • For the last 40 years it has been a feature of our parliamentary system that government departments are accountable to parliament through the select committee system. The Public Accounts Committee is the main means by which officials in government departments are held to account for delivering value for money to the tax-payer.

Unfortunately it is also a feature of the United Kingdom public sector that there is no shortage of areas of government activity where there is room for improvement. Too many government projects experience significant cost and time over-runs or fail to deliver the expected specification. The fact that these outcomes still occur with depressing regularity, provides parliamentary committees with plenty of material to consider.

Given the combination of a limited amount of time for scrutiny and volume and breadth of government activity, parliament has to make the best of the time it has. While parliament and the PAC in particular have had some notable successes, in the circumstances it can at times be hard to properly get to the bottom of what has gone on. It is also sometimes surprising to onlookers that so few senior civil servants are ever properly held accountable for their actions.

With a typical committee hearing being held over a couple of hours, to ensure the most effective scrutiny in the time available, it is important that committee members are able to ask the right questions of the witnesses who appear before them. With that in mind, here are some questions which might help committees get to the bottom of what has actually happened in the projects that come before them.

The feasibility question

Many government projects are ground-breaking, especially those which involve novel uses of information technology or the development of cutting-edge military capabilities. This would be challenging for any organisation. 

In the past, government departments have embarked on projects all too often without ever really doing the groundwork to assure themselves that they are technically feasible. While the absence of this preparatory work is sometimes a consequence of responding to ministerial imperatives, it can mean the questions of whether something can actually be delivered within reliable estimates of time and cost, or even at all, is not properly addressed.

Lines of enquiry to explore this question are as follows.

  • How did you establish whether what was proposed was feasible?
  • What professional advice did you take about technical matters, time and cost, to deliver the project? 
  • Did you act on the advice received? If not, why not?

The capability question

Most senior civil servants tend to be from a generalist or policy background and tend not to have the same depth of professional skills and expertise as their private sector equivalents. Experienced senior professionals are generally rare commodities in the public sector, largely as a consequence of the salary differential with the private sector. 

This can mean it is not uncommon for staff engaged on technically or commercially complex undertakings to be doing it for the first time and be effectively learning on the job. It is consequently not surprising that so many of them make mistakes. 

The responsibility for inadequately trained or prepared staff working on complex projects rests with those responsible for governance and oversight rather than individual staff in question. Ultimately it rests with the accounting officer who has a duty to plan and manage their department so that it is adequately equipped with the right skills in sufficient quantity for the projects the department is undertaking 

Lines of enquiry to explore this question are as follows.

  • What were the professional skills and experience of the managers running the project?
  • Had the project leader and key project staff ever done anything similar before?
  • Who was responsible for overseeing the appointments to the project?

The investment decision question

In general, government departments struggle to retain in sufficient quantity the skills to adequately appraise projects and conduct effective “due diligence” on them before committing funds to contracts. 

The members of departmental investment committees are usually generalists occupying particular management roles rather than professionals with dedicated investment analysis or due diligence skills. While they may be very experienced in government, their training has not necessarily equipped them to recognise financial or commercial flaws in projects. This drives a need to ensure experts are involved and that appropriate advice is taken.

Lines of enquiry to explore this question are as follows.

  • What expert review of financial projects and contracts took place?
  • Who undertook the review and what were their credentials?
  • How did you get comfortable with the investment case before you?
  • What issues remained unresolved or unagreed at the point of approval and what scope was there for the price or risk profile to change?          

The risk question

Government projects suffer from the well recorded phenomena of “optimism bias” which tends to suppress the level of likely risk and true cost. This behaviour arises from the need to either flatter budgets by suppressing the true estimate of likely cost or to obtain approvals to proceed within policy driven timetables.

When this is combined with tight budgets it often means that inadequate levels of contingency, either in terms of time or money to rectify the consequences, are set aside for when things do go wrong.  

Ideally government project costing should be independently reviewed for realism and adequate risk provision before a project is allowed to enter spending plans. At the very least departments should take independent advice on the amount of contingency that needs to be provided for risk. This advice would also need to extend to any changes in plans.

Lines of enquiry to explore this question are as follows.

  • How much contingency in terms of time and money was set aside to deal with risk on this project?
  • How did you assure yourself it would be adequate for a project of this type?
  • Do you know what commercial practice is for a project of this nature?
  • What expert advice did you take? Did you act on it?

The “governance and oversight” question

Due to the scale of government activity, senior officials tend not to become personally involved in project delivery unless there is a major decision of policy to be made, or there are severe delivery problems. This sometimes means that serious problems are only presented to senior management at the point where the consequences can no longer be hidden within the operational level and have become severe or even irretrievable.

Government departments also have an institutional bias towards future policy decisions and allocation of budgets rather than establishing whether money already expended was well spent. As a consequence, as part of the oversight process, senior civil servants generally do not systematically review outcomes on projects, internalise the lessons and ensure things are done differently in future. Institutional inertia and inadequate follow through on outcomes can mean that departments never really learn, but continue to repeat their mistakes.

Lines of enquiry to explore this question are as follows.

  • What processes did you have in place to ensure adequate governance of this project – did they operate as expected?
  • What issues were brought to your attention and when?
  • How quickly did you realise there was a problem? 
  • What did you do – either to fix the problem or to get a better early warning? 
  • How have you changed your procedures to prevent a recurrence? 

The “who is accountable?” question

The “who is accountable” question is one that parliamentary committees rarely get a satisfactory answer to. Either it is not clear where the buck stopped due to the nature of collective decision making, or those who appear to have been responsible for the initial errors or oversights have long departed the scene; a feature of the rapid turnover of staff in government departments. This really shouldn’t be acceptable and portrays an image of an unaccountable civil service that can be incompetent without consequences. It is in no-one’s actual interest for this image to persist. Not tax-payers’, not ministers’ and not even the civil service.

What parliamentary committees could bear in mind is that a failure by the senior management in a department to establish and maintain clear lines of accountability is as much a serious problem as poor decision making on the project itself. This is a failure to create the right environment for successful project delivery and there, the buck stops at the very top. If the accountability arrangements are not clear, or there is no accountability chain, then it is the accounting officer who is responsible. 

In such circumstances a parliamentary committee would be justified in asking for and should rightly expect to receive a resignation.

Ross Campbell, Director, Public Sector, ICAEW


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