Review of Management and Services: Report to the House of Commons Commission Part 4




4.1    We now examine the outcome of the Ibbs recommendations in greater detail: both to see how far they were implemented and to consider how well what was implemented is working. (A Table setting out the state of implementation of Ibbs recommendations, and action taken on Ibbs observations and criticisms, appears in Annex C.)

4.2    We deal first with political governance through the Commission and the committee structure, and then with the House administration, followed by individual subjects such as financial management, works and IT. Our recommendations on governance and structure are set out in Part 15; recommendations on other subjects appear in the course of the analysis.

The House of Commons Commission


4.3    Under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978 the Commission is responsible for appointing staff in the House Departments, and determining numbers of staff, pay and other terms and conditions of service. It is required to keep complementing, grading and pay "broadly in line" with those in the Home Civil Service (a definition to which we return in paragraph 15.76 below). It is also required to keep pensions and similar benefits in line with the provisions of the Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme. The Commission lays before the House the Estimates for the House of Commons service, and appoints the Accounting Officer. It may reorganise House Departments and their functions. It has extensive powers of delegation, both to the Speaker and to the Accounting Officer or any Head of a House Department. It determines its own procedure.

4.4    The Commission has six members: the Speaker, who is Chairman of the Commission, and a member ex officio; the Leader of the House, also a member ex officio; a Member of the House nominated by the Leader of the Opposition; and three other Members of the House, appointed by the House, none of whom may be a Minister. There is no statutory bar to the Government of the day having a majority on the Commission, but in practice this has never happened. One member of the Commission acts as its spokesman in the House.

The Ibbs recommendation

4.5    No change to the formal powers or constitution of the Commission was suggested by the Ibbs review. But Ibbs rightly saw the Commission as central to any system of governance, being the one body in a position to take a leading role in determining policy. He thought it had always been reticent about its proceedings and also in disseminating its decisions; and it was seen by Members at the time as "somewhat shadowy".

4.6    Ibbs recommended that the Commission should play a more prominent role, giving strong leadership, determining policy for any service involving expenditure, directing execution and development of policy, and controlling finances. It should have new sources of expert advice and support.

4.7    It would also:

  • ensure that the House had, and made good use of, good financial management systems, and would draw upon these in its own work
  • receive recommendations from all domestic committees
  • take on responsibility for all expenditure on services (excluding Members' pay and allowances)
  • be more communicative, making its decisions known more widely, for example through the publication of minutes or through Written Answers, and through making its Annual Report more informative by including Departmental Annual Reports

What has happened?

4.8    The Commission's strategic awareness and grasp of service issues have greatly increased over the period since the Ibbs Review, but there has been a tendency to be reactive, partly because of the unco–ordinated and sometimes over–detailed way in which matters have come to the Commission for decision.

4.9    The financial and management information available to the Commission has limited its ability to set policy and to evaluate strategic options. Its engagement with matters coming from the domestic committees, and the exercise of its responsibilities for expenditure on services, have been limited, or largely reactive, for the same reasons. However, improvements in the operation of the Board of Management, and in the range and quality of information available, have more recently allowed the Commission to take longer–term views of expenditure and staffing.

4.10    The Commission has also acted as the guardian of the House's interests, for example in establishing principles and safeguards for printing and publication once HMSO had been privatised.

4.11    The Secretary to the Commission plays a crucial part in the organisation of the Commission's business, and in helping Departments and Committees to present matters for decision. He would be helped by a more corporate approach on the part of all Departments, and better, and earlier, preparation of submissions by some.

4.12    The Commission meets approximately once a month; but Commissioners' commitments would make it difficult substantially to increase the amount of time they spend on Commission business. This places a greater premium on support for the Commission, and preparation of its business, especially in providing options for decision, and filtering out matters which should not occupy Commission time.

4.13    Those who deal with the Commission are impressed by its positive approach and good, frank, working atmosphere.

4.14    The Commission remains a shadowy body to many Members of the House. 53% of Members know nothing about the Commission, and of these 14% have never heard of it. In 1990, the figures were 37% and 13% respectively. The fall in level of knowledge is probably attributable to the proportion of 1997 entrants, of whom 72% say they know nothing about the Commission.

4.15    The Commission's main method of communication with Members in general has been through Written Answers. In seeking to inform the House, it has sometimes been proactive, and answers have been given in detail and at some length. However, we have doubts about the effectiveness of this. The days when a significant number of Members read Written Answers are long gone.

4.16    The Commission's Annual Report (a statutory requirement) is an excellent and informative document, which has been developed and expanded in successive years. It seems to be little known, however – particularly among those who criticise a lack of information about the administration of the House; and its value may be more as a discipline upon the Departments who contribute to it than as a practical means of informing Members. It is nevertheless important as a means of reporting and transparency appropriate to a public body (see paragraph 5.22)

4.17    We return to these issues in a broader consideration of communications in Part 11.

The Finance and Services Committee (F&S)

The problem

4.18    Ibbs thought the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) and its five sub–committees had indistinct responsibilities and blurred relationships with other management bodies in the House. They were not resourced to carry out their tasks properly. The full Committee of 20 Members was large, and seen as representative of a wide range of Members' views; but the membership of the five sub–committees was drawn from the main committee, and this over–burdened Members, leading to poor attendance and loss of continuity.

4.19    The full Committee could offer advice only to the Speaker, not the Commission. Ibbs believed that it added little value to more detailed consideration that had already taken place in sub–committees.

The Ibbs recommendation

4.20    The Ibbs Review recommended the abolition of the Services Committee and its replacement by a new structure, headed by a Finance and Services Committee with a central role in the management of services. The Committee would have a heavy workload — especially for the Chairman, who was to be a member of the Commission able to devote the time necessary for the Committee's business and to develop close and frequent contact with other members of the Committee and with key officials. The other members of F&S were to be the Chairmen of the four domestic committees and the Government and Opposition Deputy Chief Whips.

4.21    The Committee's tasks were to be

  • to prepare the annual Estimates for submission to the Commission
  • to advise the Commission on Departments' budget proposals and to monitor performance against plans
  • to carry out individual tasks delegated to it by the Commission
  • to examine all recommendations on services sent to the Speaker and the Commission by the domestic committees, to report on their financial and administrative implications and to recommend an order of priority for their introduction

4.22    The Accounting Officer was seen as being formally the Committee's chief adviser, with professional advice and support coming from the new Finance Director. Heads of Departments or their representatives would attend the Committee frequently. The Committee would proceed by deliberation, with full minutes being published after each meeting. The possibility of empowering the Committee to meet jointly with the equivalent Committee of the House of Lords was to be explored.

What has happened?

4.23    F&S was appointed under Standing Order No.144, made on 18 July 1991, although difficulties in agreeing the membership meant that it was not nominated until 11 December 1992. Its orders of reference were exactly as envisaged by Ibbs, and it was given power to meet jointly with the equivalent Lords Committee (as well as with any of the four domestic committees); a power which it has not exercised. It was larger than recommended, with nine members; but its membership included the seven individuals specified by Ibbs. The membership was increased to eleven at the beginning of this Parliament. Ibbs was clearly correct in identifying the Chairmanship as a pivotal — and burdensome — role; and personalities have been crucial in its operation.

4.24    F&S has engaged in some of the tasks foreseen by Ibbs. In the 1992 Parliament, in addition to annual consideration of the Administration Vote and the Works Vote (including the new Parliamentary building), the Committee examined the following main subjects: Refreshment Department (finance and modernisation); communications, including the PDVN; broadcasting archives; privatisation of HMSO; childcare provision; and select committee travel.

4.25    However, F&S has not fully taken on its intended role.

4.26    When the Committee has adopted the deliberative style of proceeding recommended by Ibbs, this has generally been an improvement on formal evidence–taking, allowing better informal co–operation between Members and Officers. The Committee publishes its Minutes of Proceedings recording its decisions; but these normally appear some time after the event; and they are terse matters of record, not papers for further action. The fuller minutes foreseen by Ibbs have a very restricted circulation and are not published.

4.27    The functions and powers of the Committee are not clear to its own members, let alone to the House more generally. Only 42% of Members at large know "anything" about the Committee. Nor does it seem to be valued as one might expect. The Committee was not nominated until six months after the start of the new Parliament; a key member of the Committee remains nominated to it ten months after he relinquished the post which gave him ex officio membership (he does not attend and his successor cannot); and attendance has fallen sharply, from an average of 77% over the last Parliament to 57% in the first full Session of this Parliament.

4.28    The fall in average attendance is partly because F&S operated as an informal sub-committee, to consider the Estimates, for 4 of its 11 meetings in the 1997–98 Session. Preparation of the Estimates was the first of the tasks of F&S identified by Ibbs; the Committee's choice of this approach to so important an area of work raises questions about its size and composition. We also note that five months elapsed before the first meeting of F&S in this Session.

4.29    The membership of the Committee at the outset in this Parliament was entirely different from that at the Dissolution. Although a major turnover in membership of the House as a whole and changes in office–holders were factors, the F&S function envisaged by Ibbs cannot be performed effectively if there is no continuity and no store of experience.

4.30    The presence on the Committee of the Chairmen of the domestic committees has led to the criticism that F&S is not able to take a sufficiently detached and corporate view because the Chairmen "own" proposals coming from their individual committees and are thus less disposed to criticise the proposals of others.

4.31    The way that F&S has operated raises questions about its place in a structure which the Committee itself regards as lacking clarity. It has also contributed to the perception that F&S in its present form is an unnecessary layer in a complex system.

4.32    Some political preparation for the Commission is needed, and F&S's subsidiary role as an audit committee needs to be performed by a body separate from the Commission. However, if F&S entirely fulfils its job description, then the Commission's role is reduced. If F&S has established priorities between services, and has examined the Estimates (in both cases referring matters to the Board of Management as necessary), then the Commission's choice is largely between endorsing and reworking. Neither is wholly satisfactory.

The domestic committees

The problem

4.33    The sub–committees of the Services Committee were part of the diffuse and unclear arrangements criticised by Ibbs. Low attendance led to lack of continuity; and at the same time sub–committees operated in executive mode, but isolated from wider considerations.

The Ibbs recommendation

4.34    This was to turn the sub–committees into independent select committees, and to reduce their number from five to four: on catering; accommodation and works, including new buildings; library, publications and information technology; and administration (dealing with such things as exhibitions, passes and facilities for visitors, and any other matters not dealt with by the other three). These committees were intended to cover the functions of House Departments (with the exception of the Department of the Clerk of the House, which was thought to be covered adequately by the Procedure and Liaison Committees). Ibbs thought that the responsibilities of the Broadcasting Committee (which supervised the broadcasting of proceedings) could within a few years be transferred to the Administration Committee.

4.35    The job of the domestic committees was to make policy recommendations to the Commission or to the Speaker. If those recommendations had financial implications, they would be passed to F&S, which would offer advice to the Commission. If the committees wished to discuss executive matters, they would do so as consumer groups. They were to consist of nine members (proposed by the Committee of Selection) to achieve a wider spread of opinion, and with a broad range of experience. They should appoint specialist advisers. As with F&S, they were urged to use formal evidence extremely sparingly and to adopt a more deliberative style.

4.36    Officers of the House (at relatively junior level if they were responsible for the matters under discussion) were "invariably" to attend and take a full part in deliberations. The Finance Director or his representative should provide financial information. Full minutes should be published after every meeting.

4.37    Ibbs noted that since 1979 a single Officer had served both as Secretary of the Commission and Clerk of the Services Committee. He considered that this arrangement should continue for the Commission and F&S, but that the domestic committees should be staffed independently to underline their separate role.

What has happened?

4.38    Four domestic committees were appointed under S.O. No. 142, made on 18 July 1991. They matched the portfolios suggested by Ibbs; the library, publications and information technology committee was called simply the Information Committee. Their powers were those envisaged by Ibbs (and they were able to meet jointly with F&S, the Broadcasting Committee or any other domestic committee or the Lords equivalent). There have been very few formal meetings of this sort, although Chairmen have attended Lords Committees by invitation. They had seven members rather than the nine suggested by Ibbs, but the membership was increased to nine at the start of the present Parliament. Ibbs's recommendation that the Committee of Selection should propose names to the House (as with the Departmental Select Committees) was implemented.

4.39    The Committees were empowered to make recommendations to the Commission or to the Speaker; but any proposal involving expenditure had also to be considered by F&S. Their non–executive role was emphasised by a provision that they should have "power to make rules and give directions to Officers of the House in respect only of such administrative matters" as the Speaker or the Commission should determine. A list of the current delegations is at Annex D.

4.40    On occasion, the domestic committees have operated exactly as Ibbs intended, reflecting opinion, considering and advising, assisting but not supplanting management, and improving the quality of decision–making. Personalities have been crucial, and there have been both Chairmen and Members who have been assiduous and effective — and often unappreciated.

4.41    Overall, however, the implementation of the Ibbs recommendation on the domestic committees has not been a success:

  • The introduction of the domestic committee system has not clarified the decision–making structure, in the eyes of Members generally and of many members of the committees themselves. Despite the logic of the Ibbs prescription, the terms of the Standing Order, the advice of Officers and the detailed and explicit written guidance given to all Members by committee staff, the committees have often not been clear about their role and powers, nor about their relationship with other bodies
  • This has led on too many occasions to the assumption of an executive role, familiar to those Members with local government experience. Even if the committee concerned has acted beyond its powers, officers have tended to fall in with committees' wishes — probably for lack of confidence in authority to do otherwise
  • Some business has moved back and forth "horizontally" between Committees, rather than different aspects of advice being directed upwards to F&S and the Commission. This may be at least partly due to the domestic committees' not seeing F&S as "above" them, as in the Ibbs model, but as another domestic committee with different responsibilities at the same level
  • Committees have also become involved in the fine detail of implementation, which has not been the best use of their time
  • Committees have from time to time pursued policies inconsistent with previous decisions or broader aims
  • The domestic committees as a whole (practice has varied) do not yet operate in the deliberative manner suggested by Ibbs, using evidence — formal or informal — very sparingly
  • Their minutes are formal documents of record, not papers for action; and the circulation of their much fuller informal minutes is very restricted; indeed, no domestic committee was prepared to allow us access to its informal minutes. Domestic committees have not been willing to allow their informal minutes to go to F&S. One committee (Administration) does not produce informal minutes

4.42    Falling attendance, but more emphatically very high levels of turnover, raise questions of the perceived value and effectiveness of the committees.

4.43    Members' attendance at meetings of the four domestic committees (A&W, Administration, Catering and Information) is lower than in the last Parliament (falling from an average of 75% to an average of 64% in the first Session of this Parliament). The turnover of membership at the start of this Parliament was significant; a total of only seven Members survived from the previous committees. On one committee every Member was new and then there was a turnover of nearly half the membership during the first Session of this Parliament.

4.44    Only 19% of Members of domestic committees had served on those Committees in the previous Parliament. The turnover in the House as a whole was a factor, but the 80% loss of experience, knowledge and continuity undoubtedly affected the operation of the domestic committees. In addition, almost half the Members nominated at the start of this Parliament were new to the House.

4.45    One of the roles of the domestic committees is to be the voice of Members in the formulation of policy on services. Each committee fulfils this role itself as a group of Members, but (except perhaps in the case of the Catering Committee) the committees are not a conduit for wider opinion in the House. This is probably for the same reasons identified by Ibbs:

  • Members are not familiar with the committee and management structure. The best known committee is the Catering Committee, about which 86% of Members say they know something (although not always in terms of approval), followed by the Accommodation and Works Committee (65%) and the Administration and Information Committees (about 50%)
  • The Committees are not seen by Members as the most effective means of bringing about change. The survey showed that only a quarter of those Members making a complaint or a request had approached a domestic committee — usually the Catering Committee (45% of the total). The survey also revealed negative feelings about the quality of the Committees' work

4.46    The staffing arrangements recommended by Ibbs have been implemented. The Secretary to the Commission (a Principal Clerk) is also Clerk of F&S, but the domestic committees are clerked by two Senior Clerks.

The organisation of House services


4.47    The House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978 formalised the organisation of House services in six Departments:

  • the Department of the Clerk of the House
  • the Department of the Speaker
  • the Department of the Serjeant at Arms
  • the Department of the Library
  • the Administration Department
  • the Department of the Official Report

The Act gave the House of Commons Commission power to change the numbers or functions of House Departments. The Refreshment Department became a Department of the House in 1980. We have excluded the Department of the Speaker from our considerations: its task is to support Madam Speaker in her official duties, and its staff are appointed personally by her.

The Ibbs recommendation

4.48    Ibbs found six Departments of the House operating in a federal structure, with Heads of Departments personally responsible for carrying out policies laid down by Members. He judged that staff identified closely with their Departments and were strongly motivated towards providing their specialised services. He concluded that this sense of commitment was a strength of the system.

4.49    Ibbs did not recommend any fundamental change to the federal structure. He felt that strong leadership from the Commission, clear policies from a modified pattern of committees, an enhanced role for the Board of Management, and a sound system of financial management, would allow officials to deliver improvements in services at the points where they were most needed.

4.50    He did, however, recommend the strengthening of the structure through the appointment of a Director of Finance and the reorganisation of the Administration Department to provide enhanced financial information and support. As a consequence of his recommendation that the Works Vote should be brought under House control, he recommended the appointment of a Director of Works. We consider these changes in more detail in Part 7.

What has happened?

4.51    We too have found the sense of close identity of staff and Departments which was clear to Ibbs. Staff are formally appointed to the House service, but in practice to a Department. Moves of staff between Department are increasing slowly but are relatively infrequent; and do not in practice happen above pay band A2 (Grade 7). To an extent this is unsurprising; much of the work of Departments involves specialist and technical expertise which is not easily or quickly learned, especially at more senior levels; but it has its disadvantages.

4.52    The strong motivation of staff towards providing the services from which their Department is responsible is widely evident and is an extremely valuable asset.

4.53    However, the federal structure, and individual Departments' degree of self-sufficiency and independence, have had three undesirable effects:

  • staff in individual Departments generally know little of the work of other Departments, and are thus less inclined to value it or to understand its contribution to the work and support of the House
  • The work of the House and its Committees is the core business of the institution. Yet knowledge and understanding of this core business and its requirements is often very limited among staff — even at relatively senior grades — who are not directly involved in it, with a risk that their work may be less effective as a result
  • Departments have been able to pursue different policies in the same or closely related fields, with inadequate co-ordination or strategic direction. A rigid uniformity is undesirable in any organisation; methods of working and support have to match the demands of the activity concerned. But there are issues — such as financial information and control, staffing, information systems and technology, and accommodation — which for reasons of overall effectiveness and value for money must be treated House–wide
  • It is in this last area that progress is now being made, driven by the Clerk and the Director of Finance and Administration.

The Clerk of the House

The Ibbs analysis

4.54    Ibbs acknowledged a possible tension between the operational roles of Heads of independent House Departments, and the corporate role that they would be required to play as members of the Board of Management. He considered that the Clerk of the House, as Accounting Officer and primus inter pares, was already in a position to exert the leadership that would be needed and, in effect, to fill the role of Chief Executive. It was for this reason that he did not recommend the appointment of a separate Chief Executive, and instead said that the Commission should make clear "the Clerk's overall management responsibility ... for the execution of policy in relation to services".

What has happened?

4.55    With the reorganisation of the Vote arrangements recommended by Ibbs, the Clerk of the House became the Accounting Officer for the three Parliamentary Votes (Administration, Works and Members' Salaries etc.) The Director of Catering became an Additional Accounting Officer for the Refreshment Department Trading Fund. (The Administration and Works Votes will be merged as part of the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting.)

4.56    Under the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992 the Clerk became the Corporate Officer of the House, able to hold property and perform other functions on the House's behalf.

4.57    Ibbs had seen a more corporate approach by the Board of Management and by House Departments as a crucial part of his prescription. Not only would the Clerk be instrumental in achieving this, but the development of this approach would underpin and define the Clerk's leadership role.

4.58    In the event, progress was slow, both in terms of the role of the Board of Management (which we examine in more detail below) and the role of the Clerk; and for some time after the post-Ibbs structural changes, things continued much as they had before.

4.59    However, over the last two to three years, under the previous and present Clerks of the House, there has been an accelerating process of change, driven from the top.

4.60    This has included:

  • tighter control of expenditure, including a 2% across the board cut in Departmental budgets over the current PES period (£5 million in total), and the establishment of a contingency reserve to deal with unexpected demand
  • better manpower control and planning, with the imposition of overall limits and the use of staff in post rather than staff complements as an estimating basis
  • more rigorous Estimates scrutiny
  • establishment of aims, objectives and performance measures, their application to Departments and down through offices and sections to individuals, and the operation of year–on–year comparisons
  • more modern and effective financial policies and techniques, and their corporate application
  • an improved and House–wide approach to human resources issues and policies, including work towards Investors in People accreditation
  • identification of "cross–cutting" issues such as staffing, IT, the work of the Modernisation Committee, accommodation, information, and the impact of devolution, and an increasing emphasis on their management on a House–wide rather than a Departmental basis
  • the related introduction of a "lead Department" concept
  • better arrangements for supervision and control of the Portcullis House project

4.61    In our judgement, the Clerk of the House has now substantially taken on the role envisaged by Ibbs, being both the House's principal adviser on its business, and exercising the leadership and executive authority required to support that business.

4.62    Two inhibitions on the full assumption of this role remain:

  • staff support: not only for the Clerk personally in his disparate and heavy responsibilities, but also in supporting the processes of corporate decision–making and implementation required
  • formal relationship with the Heads of other Departments and the Board of Management. In many respects Heads of Departments in effect report to the Clerk: and he appraises their performance. But this is despite, rather than because of, the Departmental structure. Departments remain independent, and the current Instrument of Delegation made by the Commission (see Annex E) makes this independence explicit. We return to this point in the context of the Clerk and the Board of Management (see paragraph 15.43 below)

4.63    The Clerk is armed with most of the skills and attributes needed for the role foreseen by Ibbs and further developed in our recommendations. He has the authority of his office; demonstrable leadership at a high level; deep knowledge of the political context and process, and all the skills required to operate effectively in this environment; and a profound understanding of the business of supporting the House and its work. Up to now the professional experience of Clerks of the House, and of most members of the Board of Management and other senior Officers, has not equipped them for some of the tasks required of corporate management. This will need to be addressed as part of a general learning process, not only for the present incumbents of the most senior posts, but also to allow effective succession planning

The Board of Management

The problem

4.64    The Board of Management was set up at the same time as the Commission. Its members are the Heads of each House Department: the Clerk of the House as Chairman, the Serjeant at Arms, the Librarian, the Director of Finance and Administration (previously the Head of Administration), the Editor of the Official Report and the Director of Catering (previously the General Manager of the Refreshment Department). The Board was intended to co–ordinate matters affecting more than one Department, developing a House of Commons service with pay and conditions as provided in the 1978 Act. The Administration Committee, consisting mostly of Deputy Heads of Department, carried out detailed work mainly on personnel matters.

4.65    Ibbs found that the Board had kept a low profile. It did not exercise responsibility for services, and its impact was limited.

The Ibbs recommendation

4.66    Ibbs saw the Board as a key part of a more strategic and corporate approach to the management of finance and services. It would be the point at which estimates, budgets, performance targets and actual results were brought together; and, although the detailed work would continue to be done within Departments, the Board would be crucial in getting firm overall control of costs. The Board would have a close relationship with F&S, and the Director of Finance and Administration would have a key role in the Board's new style of operation.

What has happened?

4.67    In July 1991 the House of Commons Commission approved a new Instrument of Delegation (Annex E) charging the Board with the financial and co–ordinating functions envisaged by Ibbs. However, a saving paragraph provided that the Board should not be able to give directions to the Head of any House Department about the services to be provided by that Department; that Heads of Departments' right of access to the Speaker on matters affecting the services provided by their Departments was not qualified; and that their existing authority over the staff in their Departments was unchanged.

4.68    The Board took on these additional functions, but did not operate in the "supra–Departmental" way expected. It was a forum for discussion and compromise, rather than for strategy and decision. Even if the Board had followed the Ibbs prescription from the outset, it is likely that the provisos in the Instrument of Delegation would have inhibited it. Heads of Departments continued to provide the services for which they were responsible, and the lack of real pressure on expenditure meant that there was no imperative for change.

4.69    More recently, however, and particularly over the last 18 months, the Board has behaved in a more collective way. It has tackled cross–Departmental issues such as staffing, expenditure, IT and information policy (including data protection and freedom of information), and the approaching introduction of resource accounting and budgeting, very much in the ways envisaged by Ibbs. There is less fighting of Departmental corners (for example on accommodation), and better use of Board time through "pre–meetings". "Awaydays" and outside expert advice have helped to develop a corporate approach. We note that the official written evidence to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons on the possibility of a "a Main Committee" was submitted as a paper from the Board of Management. We understand this to be unprecedented.

4.70    The treatment of cross–Departmental issues has been assisted by the establishment of subject committees such as the Printing and Publishing Management Group (PPMG), the Information Systems Steering Group (ISSG) and the Accommodation Strategy Working Group (ASWG). A strategic review of the provision by Departments of information for the public is under way. The Board has tasked and maintained effective supervision of these subject committees where necessary.

4.71    Following Senior Management Reviews of each Department in 1996–97, the Board embarked on a programme of one–a–year strategic reviews of the operations of each Department: objectives, priorities, and options for future development. So far only the Refreshment Department has been covered; but this momentum needs to be maintained, particularly in order to inform strategic decisions by the Commission (see paragraph 15.7).

4.72    We note particularly that the Board's business over the last twelve months or so has been dominated by the issues of improved planning, strategic options, more effective controls, and better governance which have been at the heart of our own inquiry. There is still some way to go:

  • above all, the Board needs a strategic framework, with politically approved priorities, in order to operate effectively
  • collective methods of operation need development and extension. In particular, the Board must fully adopt the behaviour expected of any modern board: when members have agreed a course of action, they take responsibility for its implementation in their area of the business — or, in this case, their Department
  • members of the Board need further advice and training on the handling of issues within a corporate framework
  • the Board needs more support; it has a part–time Secretary who also has an important and burdensome job as Head of the Establishments Office
  • the Board is now less concerned with unnecessary detail, but this trend needs to be maintained
  • the Clerk as Chairman needs to maintain an overview, but he also has to represent his own Department
  • aspects of the federal structure remain potential inhibitors of progress

The Planning and Management Committee

4.73    The Administration Committee which, as Ibbs noted, was largely concerned with personnel issues, was metamorphosed into the Establishment Officers' Committee (EOC) in February 1992 (the change of name was to avoid confusion with the new select committee). The perceived need to work more strategically led to its renaming, in November 1997, as the Planning and Management Committee (PMC), intended to provide support and preparation for the Board.

4.74    It continued, however, as an establishments–oriented committee, often discussing issues in an isolated or theoretical way. More recently it has taken on a wider range of work, and the growing financial content of its business led the Board of Management to set up the Planning and Management Committee (Finance) in February 1999 to help oversee and co–ordinate business and financial planning. The PMC's membership is centred upon the Departmental Establishments Officers, and that of PMC(F) upon Departmental Finance Officers.

4.75    We note that over the last two years the Board of Management has increasingly tasked the PMC (and now also PMC(F)) with work on the Board's behalf, or has delegated appropriate decisions to them. The cross–Departmental support for the Board through subject groups needs to be developed and extended. We return to this in paragraph 15.53.

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