Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. That is excellent but we have now got this large pool of information that allows us to make better decisions than we had four or five years ago. Will you tell me (and list) how many policies have been pulled in the last two or three years because you realise they are not attainable because now you have got the evidence and information to show that it was impractical to start off with?
  (Mavis McDonald) Obviously we do not tally that up in the centre but what we do do is ask departments and the Treasury in particular ask departments to look at the extent to which continuing policies continue to be value for money. The spending review that we are in the middle of this time lays particular emphasis on that. In my view it is down to departments as part of their own business planning, let alone anything else, to be asking why they are continuing to do things if they cannot demonstrate that there are real results which are worth it on the ground.

  41. Do we have any examples of any one that you can think of? If I call the Treasury in, do the Treasury have any examples of one policy that has been discounted because we are not getting value for money or because it is not possible?


  42. Obviously nobody can answer that one?
  (Mavis McDonald) I am afraid I was looking at Brian.

Mr Jenkins

  43. I should have thought there would be one fairly obvious one. Fair enough. We are progressing with this training and we are getting much, much better. We are looking at how we are inter-linking all the different units because we now have no cultural problems between working with different departments. We have a strong team of policy makers so everything in the garden is lovely. There are no big problems with regard to our integrated policy unit, am I right?
  (Mavis McDonald) No. We would not lay claim to that. Policies are difficult because the issues they are dealing with can be difficult and complex, as your earlier analysis identified. What we can do is hope to go on learning from what works and what is best practice. Things like the National Literacy Strategy, which demonstrated quite quick results, gives examples of the kind of techniques and approaches which might be developed elsewhere to achieve that kind of speed and focus of delivery.

  44. The National Literacy Programme and development, a lot of ideas learned from it are passed on to other policy areas. Can you indicate which ones, please?
  (Mr Crowne) Certainly. In my own area we have learned an awful lot which has informed the development of the Key Stage 3 Strategy which is to raise standards for 11 to 14 year olds. Some of the principles have been used to guide policy development elsewhere in the department, indeed across Whitehall. In our dealings with the Delivery Unit at Number 10 some of the key principles are being reflected back in the kind of questions the Delivery Unit are asking us and other departments on the Prime Minister's delivery priorities.

  45. Can you think of any other area it was transferred to? A successful scheme, a policy no matter whether it is numeracy, no matter whether it is operations in hospital, no matter what, any of the schemes have policy guidelines, it has a policy outcome. You have gone down a certain track, it is a good practice, you can now roll it out and transfer it to somewhere else, parts of it will be picked up by another department.
  (Mr Crowne) I can give you the example that I am most familiar with, which is the Key Stage 3 Strategy, where the principle is of basing it on widely recognised best practice, convincing the practitioners that is in fact the case, providing a high degree of challenge in the way that we set targets but also providing a high degree of support.

  46. If it is good practice you put it on to the website, others can then access this website.
  (Mr Crowne) Yes.

  47. So you know how many hits you have got on your particular part of that website, would you? Would anybody follow it up?
  (Mavis McDonald) We would expect to draw it down and put that kind of example on our central website. In fact, some of the approaches to managing a programme and managing projects to achieve particular objectives and continuous assessment of the risk to those projects, methodologies for doing that, like traffic light warning, the Delivery Unit are using in the four areas in which they are developing, the Treasury are developing in the way in which they are working with departments on better articulation of their Public Service Agreements and the kind of aspects they would wish to monitor in the future during the quarterly monitoring reviews.

  48. You have a website. You put this information on the website. Does anybody know how many hits you have on that website?
  (Mavis McDonald) Ron, I think you know that information.
  (Professor Amann) Yes. In fact, we do have a website. It is called Policy Hub. It is going to be launched in a few weeks' time. On that website are going to be specific examples of best practice with all the contact addresses. Websites on their own are insufficient, you have to bring real people together for real meetings. So we are building up networks of policy makers who will be sharing the kind of best practice that we are talking about. The example of the literacy hour, for example, would be one which policy makers could draw inspiration from in other departments.

  49. We have not got it yet so we do not know. Will it be available and will it be monitored to know—without coming together for a meeting, we seem to have a meetings' culture in this country which I find difficult to break—people can just hit the website and they can view it, take it down and we know how many people hit it, if not the implications for it?
  (Professor Amann) Yes. We will be monitoring it both quantitatively in terms of the number of hits and also qualitatively, what use is made of the information through the networks that we are building up.

  50. It will be in the basis of a future report then?
  (Professor Amann) The reality will come a long time before the report.
  (Mavis McDonald) We already have a public sector benchmarking website which we and Customs and Excise run across the wider public service as well which has best practice examples on and which, again, is monitored for the number of hits that it takes.

Mr Bacon

  51. I am going to start by asking you—this is in Part 2 page 42—about paragraph 2.13. It talks about: "Involving those who will have to implement and evaluate policy in its design." It says "Involving implementers and evaluators in policy design is key to assessing the practicability of a policy. . ." which seems pretty obvious common sense, talk to people who are going to have to do it to find out if it is do-able. "We found, however, that implementers and evaluators were consulted fairly late in the design process". Can you say why?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think that reports what the NAO found. There are examples within the Report where they found good early consultation.

  52. I am not talking about examples where it is good. I am talking about this sense, things which are not good examples. Why is it often the case—I assume the NAO wrote this when they found it—implementers and evaluators were consulted fairly late?
  (Mavis McDonald) I can only assume that is because those particular case studies were examples of individuals in our departments who were not as convinced as others of the need for early consultation with not just the implementers of policies but those who the policies were designed to assist in the policy development. This is something we have been promoting, one of the principles of better policy making, for some time and it is where we have put out best practice examples such as the Social Exclusion Unit's Neighbourhood Renewal Policy Action Teams and where from the centre we have also been putting out and monitoring departments' compliance with best practice on the consultation more generally.

  53. How much of a cultural change do you think is still needed?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think myself, but my experience is limited to the areas in which I have worked, that some of the responses in the Report were quite surprising. I think there are areas, obviously, where culture change is required but my experience of social policy development over the last few years is that actually engagement with stakeholders of all kinds is becoming embedded as best practice over time and now most people would assume this is the norm.

  54. In response to my colleague, Mr Osborne, you were talking about Lord Birt and the blue skies initiative. Probably getting transport right is one of the three or four most important things facing Government at the moment. It says in paragraph 2.14 "A key lesson identified by the BSE . . ." episode was ". . . generating trust by openness with stakeholders, including the public at large . . ." and that is ". . .key to establishing the credibility of discussions about policy options". You have just told us that this blue skies unit is private and it is not going to be open for other people to take part in, it is just private advice to the Prime Minister. How is that going to generate openness with stakeholders, including the public at large?
  (Mavis McDonald) The FSU may give first thoughts to the Prime Minister and the Government more generally but that does not preclude there being wider discussion subsequently on any policy options which might be developed for that time period. They are not mutually exclusive. It is a tradition that policy advice can be given in private to ministers while they reach conclusions on the direction which they wish to follow.

  55. Do you think in developing the policy of the Individual Learning Account, best practice in policy design was followed?
  (Mavis McDonald) Pass. I know the assessment along with everybody else but I do not feel qualified to give you a particular view on that.

  56. Would the representative from the Department for Education like to comment?
  (Mr Crowne) No, I do not think I should comment on that, it is not in my area of expertise.

  57. I know it is something that the NAO is looking at. The DfES has overspent by 63 million that we know about so far, and there were lots of warnings at the time during the consultation with stakeholders of the way that the Department should do it and that the way proposed by the Department would lead to abuse and would not work and these warnings were completely ignored. It is not obvious to me that the lessons are being embedded and learned, however much best practice is put from the centre. This brings me on to the point you were making, Professor Amann, about this website, because on page 48 there is a reference to guidance. This is paragraph 2.21 and the fact that "There is a substantial amount of guidance on policy-making developed centrally by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office and departments such as the Regulatory Impact Unit guidance. . ." and so on. It says at the bottom of that paragraph "The departments we examined said that guidance on policy-making was not well used for a number of reasons: the volume of the guidance makes it difficult for policy-makers to consult it quickly; the different pieces of guidance do not fit together very well; the guidance tends to be inaccessible; policy-makers are often too busy. . .; guidance reduces policy-making to a structured, logical, methodological process that does not reflect reality." I assume that this Policy Hub is an attempt to bring all of this guidance together in one place, is that what it is all about?
  (Professor Amann) It is. I am in full agreement with the statement that you have summarised, I think it is absolutely right. There is now a very large amount of material, it is user unfriendly, it needs to be pulled together into a number of key learning lessons, exemplified by real examples that resonate with policy-makers. This is what we will be using Policy Hub for, to disseminate some of those key lessons. We will need to kick start the process, probably working together with the NAO, to synthesise these two reports that you have before you anyway, to boil those down into some of the key lessons that we want to disseminate. We will be taking that further by developing a self-evaluation tool for policy-makers so that policy-makers and departments will be able to make their own self-assessments.

  58. That is an interesting phrase, you said "will be able to". Will they do it? What will there be about the structure that will make them do it?
  (Professor Amann) I hope they will do it because what we are trying to do is build around them a new framework, a network, which will bring about culture change. The initial signs are that there is a very large degree of enthusiasm.

  59. Do you agree with this last sentence, that "guidance does tend to reduce policy-making to a structured, logical, methodical process that does not reflect reality"?
  (Professor Amann) I think it can be a bit like painting with numbers, unless you are sensible about it, but so too can the Prince methodology of project management make you operate in that mechanistic way. The important thing is a proper understanding of it and exercising common sense.


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