Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Mr Steinberg

  20. Starting where the Chairman left off basically. When I read the report it seemed a very good idea. Why has it never been done before? Why has it had to take an initiative to do this? Surely to goodness if we were to provide public services' departments should have been working together for years, why have they not?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think there is not a kind of blank sheet and then we started joint working. Programmes like the Single Regeneration Budget were designed to bring different kinds of objectives together in one programme to improve places. So there are prior examples. I think it was a focus on issues that had not really been addressed directly that led to much greater attention being placed on joint working and the need to recreate some relationships like relationships with local government and relationships with the new bodies which have been set up like the RDAs in the regions to bring different sets of partners together as policies rolled out. I think it is probably fair to say too, as Sue Richards' appendix to the report points out—sorry I am probably being too long—one of the drivers to the kind of silo effect was accountability, our search for value for money. Some of the issues which are addressed in the report about accountabilities are about finding ways of being accountable across departments, across programmes and so on.

  21. Yes. From what you are saying it is pretty obvious that cross departmental co-operation has its benefits?
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes.

  22. Obviously. Why is it that for years the right hand never seemed to know what the left hand was doing? For example, the Inland Revenue had not got a clue what the minimum wage agency or whatever it is called, whatever its official title is, when they were making different decisions on the same cases. The Inland Revenue was being taken to court. The minimum wage—what is it called?
  (Mavis McDonald) Low Pay Agency?

  23. No, they decided whether firms should have a minimum wage or not, whether they qualified for a minimum wage. I do not think it matters what it is called. The fact of the matter was I had constituents who were getting views from the Inland Revenue on the one hand and this organisation on the other hand, they go to court. I wrote to the Inland Revenue on a number of occasions giving opinions which seemed obvious to me and one department ignores the other department. Is this going to stop now?
  (Mavis McDonald) Hopefully, yes. The main thrust of better policy making generally has been to avoid that kind of palpable nonsense occurring on the ground by improved information dissemination between departments and by working together as they develop policies. I think that in both the Sure Start work and the Rough Sleepers work, there was an analysis which showed what happened if you did have those kinds of silo techniques.

  24. We will be sitting here in a position over the next four years just to see how many reports we get where it has been successful or it has not been successful. Up to now it has not been all that successful has it? I will come to that in a minute or two if I have got time because I have gone down a tack I did not want to go down. You actually obviously believe there is a need for more partnerships. On page 38, paragraph 2.4 it says "Departments, however, need to take a wide view to identify opportunities for joint working to improve service delivery." It is clear now that the departments are going to be clearly looking for where they can provide services better by joining together. What is happening now to ensure that does happen? How do you decide that a project might be better delivered if it is a joint approach rather than a single approach?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think one of the clear principles which drives you to do that is to have a sharper focus on who you are providing a service to and what their requirements are rather than what the producers' requirements are. That is one of the key principles which is being promoted through the Public Service Reform and Delivery Programme. There are two planks, as it were, of that. The Delivery Unit can promote best practice by the more detailed work it is doing with particular departments on delivery in the key 17 areas. The OPSR, the Office of Public Service Reform is working with the departments on skill and capacity and in whether they have the leadership skills to promote that kind of joint working. In the PSA process, the spending review process, for example, we now establish cross-cutting reviews as a norm and the Treasury certainly see it as part of their oversight of the PSA/PSX process to be looking for issues that look as if they are falling between gaps. Increasingly departments are required to say what impact their policy development is having on others. All this too is still within the traditional framework of clearing policies through Cabinet Committees across Whitehall before they go ahead.

  25. Page 40 talks about cost effectiveness and the Chairman mentioned this. I notice in figure 15, for example, we are given two examples of cost effectiveness, the rough sleeping scheme, before the project began, cost an incredible £117,000 for reduction of one individual sleeping rough and now it is down to £71,000. On the other hand, Childcare provision was £640 before the scheme began, it is now £650. On the one hand we have a scheme which has made huge savings and on the other hand we have a scheme which is costing more. How important is cost effectiveness in terms of these schemes? Is that the main theme or not? Is the cost effectiveness that important?
  (Mavis McDonald) Louise may want to comment on the rough sleeping figures but I think the report itself says that effective joint working might have costs just because of the joint working, but if the output is a much better one then it may be well worth that extra cost. That might be the price of the partnership but in relation to the service it may well be worthwhile. On something like rough sleeping and some of the other programmes, the costs came down because you were getting much better value for money because people were working together and some of their costs were reduced because you were helping alleviate some of the problems of the individual departments by working together. Louise, do you want to add anything to that?
  (Ms Casey) These statistics were drawn together by the NAO very helpfully. What this masks is, for example, the Ministry of Defence from April the first next year will be themselves funding the Prevention Projects which the Rough Sleepers Unit has funded, so in other words this shows the kind of per capita if you start off with 1,850 people and you are at 700 people, I think, when this report was drawn together, that is the barometer for which they have this reduction in terms of costs. Actually there are many other things which the Government has been funding because they are important and because we know that by investing in them overall over time we will reduce the number of people who end up homeless. So, for example, we fund a project in Catterick Garrison in Yorkshire that is to help men in particular who are leaving the armed forces who have been in the services for less than three years. It helps them avoid homelessness in the first place. Only time will tell, and we are doing our own independent evaluation of that, whether that is value for money but we recognised that we did not want ex-servicemen ending up on the streets or, indeed, homeless. We invested in it and that is partly what you see.

  26. Okay. Can you give us some more examples now where departments are looking for more joint approaches? Can you just give some more examples?
  (Mavis McDonald) I mentioned the cross-cutting review of the voluntary sector. I think other areas are childcare and childcare provision, that is another one. I think the drug strategy is being revisited with a view to ensuring that the drug programmes are more tightly locked in to things like the neighbourhood renewal programmes and other programmes. I think Naomi may have a comment on this.
  (Ms Eisenstadt) The two other major cross-cutting reviews that we are involved in are health inequalities and children at risk. To be successful, both of them require contribution from several Government departments, particularly on health inequalities. The main reason is health inequalities are not mainly to do with the NHS and have a lot to do with housing and transport, for example. The way the cross cutting review would work would be to pull those departments together to address the issue.

  27. Fine. If you turn to page 23, figure 11, note three right down the bottom there, the final paragraph. It tells us that by the end of August 2001 there are 250 projects which have received £260 million for experimentation. Can you just give us some examples of those?
  (Mavis McDonald) There are quite a large variety but some of them are, again, about partnership working in local communities to achieve specific objectives. I can give you a lot of detailed information about that if you want?

  28. Perhaps you could let us know some of those.
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes.[1]

  29. Are they proving to be successful as well?
  (Mavis McDonald) Certainly the ones we have evaluated have been, yes.

  30. I am at a stage where I could mention, I do not want to go down the track but I think I will, really partnerships in the past have been pretty dismal, have they not? If you look at figure 10, that springs to mind. These are some of the reports this Committee has done over the last two or three years and these were shared approaches, were they not? Frankly they were hopeless. We have sat and had witnesses in front of us for most of these schemes and frankly some of them were so bad they were unbelievable. These were joint approaches, were they not? It does not always work, does it?
  (Mavis McDonald) Obviously you have examples where it does not always work. We have to hope that we learn the lessons from those that do not work and establish partnerships that do. I think there is a lot of successful evidence of partnerships which do work and the Policy Action Teams and Neighbourhood Renewal, for example, found masses of case studies.

  31. Why did these fail particularly? Was it because of the joint approach or the joint approach was not done properly or it should have been left to an individual organisation to get on and do it? Why were they so bad, some of them? Let us just have a look at some of them. For example, the system for assessing and paying claims for incapacity and disability benefits, that was appalling. The New Millennium Experience, we will not bother to mention that one, it is still going on. If you look down there, there are some really bad feelings, are there not, with joint approach so is joint approach everything it is made out to be?
  (Mavis McDonald) The report itself suggests a number of ways in which you can make it work properly by being, in particular, very clear about what the joint partnership is for and what the objectives are and what the outcomes are.

  32. Now you are in charge will this not happen again?
  (Mavis McDonald) I am not in charge of all the partnerships.

  33. No, but you are responsible, are you not?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think individual departments are responsible for the partnerships under their own programmes. I think what we have got are a lot more examples of things which are working well which newer partnerships, like the Sure Start programme, for example, are drawing on as they develop.

  34. Do you know what worries me, Ms McDonald, it is that the Civil Service has a culture, has it not? It has had a culture for years. You have only got to look at some of the responses that we get in letters when as Members of Parliaments we write to Ministers. The Civil Service are a law unto themselves, are they not? If they are, say, accused or affected in any way they will make sure it does not work, will they not?
  (Mavis McDonald) I really do not think there is much evidence in the report to support that.

  35. There is plenty of evidence in figure 10 which will support my view, is there not?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think you will find there are a lot of partners, not all of whom are civil servants, in some of these examples. We are not saying we should not get better, but we do accept the recommendations in the report in principle. A lot of what has been happening over the last two or three years in the Civil Service Reform Programme, for example, is trying to open that up. I think you will find there are lots of civil servants now who have wider experience.

  36. That was a point I would like to make about senior civil servants' experience. I sit now in the Chamber and look at the little box and see civil servants in the little boxes and they are about 22 or 23 years old. They have no experience of life at all. It seems incredible. How many senior civil servants come directly from university? How many from industry? How many from commerce? Do you know these figures?
  (Mavis McDonald) Not off the top of my head.[2]

  37. It would be interesting to know.
  (Mavis McDonald) What I do know is that there is a significant programme of interchange. Something like over 4,000 people have come into the senior Civil Service or civil servants have gone out to get broader experience. Most of us would expect to be used to working in partnership with other people. For example, I chaired the Policy Action Team on Low Demand for Housing. I have got experience, also, as a non executive director in the private sector. Sorry, I should not personalise but just to give you an example.

  38. No, that is fine.
  (Mavis McDonald) I am a governor of a university college in London. I am a member of a housing association board. We have different ways of broadening our own experience. We would expect people to build up that kind of portfolio. My colleagues on my left, both of whom are not from the traditional Civil Service background, bring a lot of their broader experience and they pass that on to the teams they are working with.

  Mr Steinberg: That is great. I am delighted to hear that.

  Chairman: They are still very young looking.
  (Mavis McDonald) Good.
  (Ms Eisenstadt) Thank you.

  Mr Steinberg: I think the only way this is going to fail is if the Civil Service do not want it to work. It should be interesting in the next two or three years to see exactly what happens.

Mr Bacon

  39. Miss Casey, do you accept that your street count numbers are discredited?
  (Ms Casey) No, I do not.

1   Ev, Appendix 1, p 21. Back

2   Note by witness: 202 people were appointed to the SCS between 1 April 2000 and 1 April 2001. Of these 77 (38.1%) were civil servants, 98 (48.5%) were from the wider public sector and 27 (13.4%) from the private sector. The figures are taken from the Civil Service Commissioners Annual Report 2000-2001, and are not broken down any further. Back

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