Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good afternoon and welcome to the Committee of Public Accounts. Today we welcome Mavis McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, who is going to talk to us about joined up Government. Perhaps you would like to introduce your team.

  (Mavis McDonald) Perhaps you would not mind if I asked them to introduce themselves as there are rather a lot of us today I am afraid, starting with Stephen.
  (Mr Mitchell) Stephen Mitchell, from the Treasury, from the Public Services Directorate.
  (Ms Hogbin) Vanessa Hogbin from the Small Business Service.
  (Ms Casey) Louise Casey from the Rough Sleepers Unit in DTLR.
  (Ms Eisenstadt) Naomi Eisenstadt from Sure Start.

  2. Thank you very much. Perhaps I can just lead straight into page one where you will see in the third paragraph that obviously joint working aims to deliver better public services. What evidence is there to support the fact that joint working is leading to better public services?
  (Mavis McDonald) Thank you, Chairman. Perhaps, just before I give you a straight answer, it is probably self-evident obviously but my colleagues are here because, apart from Stephen from the Treasury to whom the report directs some of its recommendations, they each represent units which were case studies for the NAO study, so I hope you will not mind if I ask them to join me in giving you answers from their experience in response to some of these questions.

  3. No, as long as you do not ask them to give an answer to every single question.
  (Mavis McDonald) No.

  4. Because my colleagues are time limited.
  (Mavis McDonald) Absolutely. I understand that.

  5. There have been problems in the past where colleagues have not been able to pursue a line of questioning because you obviously cannot know what is going on with all these schemes. So my colleagues may well want significant detail with individual questions.
  (Mavis McDonald) Okay. If we are playing it wrongly, I would be grateful if you would give me a steer.

  6. All right.
  (Mavis McDonald) In starting off in answering your question, there are a variety of ways in which we can seek evidence from the centre from things like the People's Panel and Focus Groups, from the work that has been done on customer focus that the new Office of Public Service Reform will take forward and from things like the Learning Labs which the Centre for Policy and Management Studies have promoted within the Cabinet Office, which are projects which take place with a variety of partners in certain places in the country to find out what kind of experience they have had of different aspects of policy making and delivery, including joint working. From each of the individual programmes which are going forward we have the capacity for increasingly better read back from the Government Offices for the Regions about what is working well and what is not working well on the ground, as the range of departments which are now represented in the Government Offices has increased considerably over the last couple of years. We have some new methods of working where the concept of a Local Strategic Partnership has been rolled out with particular reference to the neighbourhood renewal programme which, as you know, is a programme that came out of the Social Exclusion Unit's work on neighbourhood renewal and led to the setting up of another cross-cutting unit which actually was not one of the case studies. Through the Local Strategic Partnerships the regional offices have the capacity, again, to look at what is working well and what is not working well there. Broadly there is a difference between what methodology is working, how the partnerships are working as partnerships to pull things together better in terms of analysing problems. But on quite a lot of the programmes, including some of those reflected here today, the actual delivery of better outcomes is going to take a little time to come through depending on what kind of client you are looking at.

  7. We might come back to evaluations in a moment. The schemes we are talking about today are spending a billion pounds so you are happy to advise this Committee that it is money well spent and adds up to value for money?
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes, in so far as we have outcome results so far. We have from the Rough Sleepers Unit the immediate results that they have been tracking against their target over time and you might want to ask Louise more about that.

  8. I will come back in a moment to that.
  (Mavis McDonald) Again, Sure Start is a slightly different programme with a ten year focus.

  9. All right. Can you now turn to page 23 and you will see paragraph 11 there. You have got there the four approaches which you are using to promote joint working. How are you measuring their successes, page 23?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think I will take them as they come. In developing new thinking, then the Cabinet Office itself has led quite a lot of new thinking through the reports of the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU), the Performance and Innovation Unit, and we monitor and work with departments on the implementation of those reports. On the whole of the SEU's work we have an implementation committee which is not necessarily just a monitoring committee but a mutual support, exchange of views committee which we have just set up to follow through on that kind of work. I think what we are finding is some things work well and some things are much more difficult. As the report itself points out, each policy requires a slightly different approach to joint working, each policy might require a different approach to the way in which the money and funding is set up and each line of accountability might be slightly different. I think we would view developing new thinking as work in progress still and that there are several areas, such as those that we are looking at on relationships with the voluntary sector, where not everything is perfect and there is more to be done. As to providing guidance and carrying out initiatives, we have ourselves a best practice website which gets a significant number of hits and we monitor the take up of people who hit the website to see whether they have found it of any use at fairly regular intervals. Also, we are members of something called the Public Sector Benchmarking Service where we set up with Customs a benchmarking scheme to cross the wider public service and not just the Civil Service. We still, of course, have the Charter Mark scheme where the continuing interest of people in public service delivery right through from the centre of departments to the front line is some indicator that the key policy set out in modernising government which sets some of the benchmarks for the current Charter Mark are still being pursued at various levels throughout Government. On encouraging and facilitating experimentation, I would not really want to add to the examples, particularly, given in the study there. On resources and skills, I think, as you are aware, we have got a range of programmes designed to improve policy making including project management skills, risk management skills and leadership skills across the Civil Service.

  10. If we now turn to page 43, particularly paragraph 2.15, you will see there under the headline `cross-cutting Public Service Agreements' examples such as Criminal Justice System. Have these agreements helped the departments to work together?
  (Mavis McDonald) Could I ask Stephen Mitchell to answer that?
  (Mr Mitchell) Yes. We believe that they have. There is evidence both of some successful achievement, for example, on the persistent re-offenders target where the target for the length of time from arrest to disposal of sentence has been halved.

  11. Could you speak up, please.
  (Mr Mitchell) Yes. That target has been achieved ahead of time which shows that at the outcome end of it some progress has been made. There is also a sense that new structures have been put in place, that having a PSA around which all Government departments can focus their attentions has made sure that there is a real transmission of will down the system and that some of these departments that are working on common areas have to get out of their silos.

  12. That is quite a positive answer. If you go straight back to page three, paragraph ten, you will see that ". . . local partnerships told us that while joint working was now much better locally, they considered that departments needed to work together more centrally". What is your response to that?
  (Mr Mitchell) I think departments can always work together more at the centre. We feel that where the cross-cutting Public Service Agreements have been put in place that has encouraged that to start happening, or happening more than it would otherwise have done.

  13. Let us just pursue this business of people not working together as well as they might. If you now go to page 92 you will see there is a comment there in paragraph 20. It says: "In 1998, half of partners surveyed said that a lack of co-ordination between central government departments was an important barrier to partnership development because departments had differing roles, areas of responsibility . . ." etc. How are you helping departments to tackle these barriers?
  (Mavis McDonald) I will ask Vanessa to answer that.
  (Ms Hogbin) Obviously 1998, that was before we actually introduced the Small Business Service. One of the reasons that the Small Business Service was introduced was particularly to tackle this issue about trying to get a more joined up approach across Government to the delivery of services to small and medium enterprises. Particularly, as you say, the feeling amongst the partners on the ground, so to speak, was that they were trying to deliver services to customers but were having to deal with a variety of different funding streams with different objectives added to them and, therefore, one of the main objectives of the Small Business Service obviously is to pull some cohesion into all of the funding streams to actually be able to deliver a more coherent package direct to the customer.

  14. Let us pursue some of this integration a bit further and go back to page six, paragraph 14. You will see there it says that units such as Sure Start have been set up to integrate services because of the number of departments and organisations. What is being done to ensure that their new methods of working are adopted by other departments?
  (Mavis McDonald) As the report itself points out, there are a number of different kinds of approaches to joined up working and not all models are necessarily the right ones. There is not one model that fits all kinds of sets of circumstances. I mentioned in an earlier answer the potential role of the regional offices to feed back information about what is working on the ground. The new White Paper on Local Government takes on the thinking about working locally with local authorities and through different kinds of partnerships further, and, of course, within the structures at the centre of Government, including Cabinet Committees, there is the capacity for oversight of issues to decide that an issue needs a cross-cutting approach between departments. Sometimes it is about bringing together thinking about the policies straight away through one of these committees, sometimes it might be about delivery and different ways of delivery, thinking what kind of approach is required. Again as the report says, increasingly we are trying to do this through area based initiatives looking at whether an existing partnership or unit or authority might have the capacity to lead on an issue that requires a degree of joined working or, indeed, whether you want something very specific and very targeted which has a one-off set of targets with a time limited remit. What we are really trying to do is to bed down this thinking in the way in which we approach policy development. As the report suggests, thinking is needed about where you need to join up early, who needs to analyse the problem, who then needs to own it and implement it and choose which model best suits what is going on. Across the whole of that there is the capacity for the PSA monitoring processes and the targets set within the PSAs and SDAs to provide a framework for a more or less continuous monitoring.

  15. Okay. On to the bit about administrative burdens, just for a moment. If you look at page eight, paragraph 20, you will see that some of the organisations may be small and have a limited experience of working in the public sector. How will you minimise the administrative burdens on these smaller bodies?
  (Mavis McDonald) In terms of the relationships with the voluntary sector, which are key players in a number of service deliveries, we actually have a cross-cutting spending review looking at the interactions on service delivery with the voluntary sector which has as its terms of reference the scope for making that relationship easier. The Regional Co-ordination Unit has been doing some work on regeneration funding which is about making the processes easier and we are trying to bring the two of those together. The kinds of things we are thinking about doing are about not expecting different requirements every time somebody gets a grant but seeing the extent to which there can be an agreed framework within which all departments ask the same kinds of questions and the variation relates to the specific programme. We are also looking at the capacity for things like only being accredited by one department and if one department provides that accreditation other departments will accept it without requiring small voluntary bodies in particular to keep going through a costly process. All this is work in hand. Those are the kinds of things we are tyring to do to reduce the burden of that kind of impact.

  16. Thank you very much. I want to ask a final question about evaluation, but before I come on to that I want to turn to Ms Casey and refer to the article in the Sunday Mirror of 16 December 2001 which was throwing doubt on the figures that you adduced for the reduction of rough sleepers. "But the Sunday Mirror discovered that 12 people were sleeping rough in Sheffield, despite official figures showing just one, and in Bristol there were 21—three times the official figure." Now, the article says the Public Accounts Committee are going to quiz you about this so perhaps we ought to quiz you about it.
  (Ms Casey) Basically the Sunday Mirror, my understanding is, went out and surveyed people who they thought were rough sleeping on the streets. They did not take part in the local authority and charity street counts and audits that have taken place. Overall, over the last five or six years, so before 1996, the Government adopted the methodology for doing rough sleeping counts and that has been done in successive years in and out, in and out, and we have adopted the same thing. We are measured against a 1998 base line that was based on that original methodology which was actually developed by Shelter and Homeless Network. In relation to the Sunday Mirror my view is that they are trying to trash what has been an extraordinarily positive two and a half years of tremendous work done by voluntary organisations, charities and local authorities across the country, and it is a shame that they are doing it. We stand by the figures. They are the most robust and consistent method, the street counts take place in the same way and they have done now for years, since before 1996.

  17. Do some organisations, very worthy organisations, have an impetus perhaps to exaggerate figures to encourage extra funding?
  (Ms Casey) That is for you to judge. My view is that we have lots of methods as to how we scrutinise and look at the performance of voluntary organisations that are funded by the taxpayer to deliver services to help rough sleepers, to help them come inside. We have got those mechanisms in place and they are the people we have the relationship with.

  18. Okay. Just finally on evaluation, Ms McDonald. That is a very important area which other colleagues may want to return to. If you turn to page seven, paragraphs 17, 18 and 19, you will see there have been very few independent evaluations of these schemes' cost-effectiveness. For the average cost of reducing rough sleeping it is £70,000 per person. That is a lot of money on this. Should you be doing more to assess cost-effectiveness?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think that we fully accept the recommendation in the report that we need to get better at evaluation, and that includes cost-effectiveness, in terms of joint initiatives where some of our experience is relatively new in terms of the kind of issues we are trying to address and the methods that we are using. We would not want to disagree with the NAO on that recommendation. I think we would expect the main evaluation to be led by departments obviously but within a framework of the monitoring processes of the PSA/PSX, the ministerial committee that scrutinises departments' performance. I think too that we recognise part of the focus on improved public service delivery by ministers since the election and the setting up of the new units in the Cabinet Office is designed to ensure that we, when we are developing policies, are thinking through more about implementation, how you tell whether it is working. It really goes back to some of the discussions we have had about risk management as part of policy making and having robust methods in the evaluation of what is happening in order to enable you to know whether you are still on track or whether you need to vary the policy. I would go back to what I said earlier, some of the examples we have got here are very specific with short-term targets, some of them are much longer programmes and of much greater complexity where the actual evaluation of the outcomes as opposed to what you are doing is actually going to take some time to come through.

  19. This goes against the whole grain of Whitehall, does it not, joined up Government. It is quite a task you have got but there is heavy impetus, particularly from the Prime Minister. When this impetus comes to an end do you think you can sustain this progress towards joined up Government in Whitehall?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think there has been a lot going on over the last two or three years to try and ensure we do see joined up working as part of our responsibility as civil servants, including the kind of way in which we set our own objectives against which we are going to be assessed for our own pay. I think in terms of long term sustainability through particular programmes then we are going to have some interesting debates about exit strategies from particular programmes to ensure that we can make the successful programmes, where we brought different departments together to deal with a particular client group or a particular issue, sustain that interest over time. Those are some of the discussions we are having now about how you might do that. I think none of us would be confident that you just say "Well, you set up a unit and you walk away" or you identify a problem and walk away. Currently we have various kinds of machinery, like that on neighbourhood renewal, for example, where there is a ministerial committee supervising implementation. There is also a Permanent Secretary Committee led by the Treasury. We have quite a lot of new bits of framework, as it were, to try and ensure we sustain this momentum.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I will now turn to Mr Steinberg. Will you keep your answers as brisk as possible.

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