Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


MONDAY 13 MAY 2002


  40. Thank you for that very interesting series of questions. It is always very valuable when members do their own practical research. Thank you for that. You denied this newspaper report about the numbers of Civil Service jobs which might go. Assuming that you meet all the targets of delivering all your services 100 per cent on-line by 2005, how many Civil Service jobs do you think might go?
  (Mr Pinder) I do not know.
  (Mavis McDonald) I do not know. Neither we nor the Treasury approach the totality of what is going on in that particular way. The basic process of PSA's delivery targets monitoring against those targets is the framework within which any individual e-business case for a big project would fit. That would be the format within which we would expect particular questions about efficiency savings, including SAF savings, to be judged, talked about, set and monitored. Within the Cabinet Office we would not. Neither anywhere else within the Cabinet Office nor Andrew's Office sees individual business cases that go forward in that way and build up that material.

  41. Let us talk in general terms about this. Far be it for me to put you on the spot, but if we are talking about four million public sector employees and two million of them actually connected with providing services direct to the public, this could have a huge impact on the way our public services are run and presumably on the ability for you and your Department to transfer resources across to people in the front line.
  (Mavis McDonald) That is clearly part of the agenda in terms of being able to improve public service delivery. Things like NHS Direct or e-prescriptions for example, can release the time of doctors, nurses and other frontline staff, then you are increasing the capacity of the whole service. Ministers view that as a very valuable thing to be able to be doing. Some of that may not save back office jobs in Whitehall or in National Health Service Trusts. You would have to ask my colleagues in Health about that. There are examples where you can just speed up the service; you do not necessarily decrease staff, but the speed with which you are interacting with the public means you are providing a much more efficient service. We in the Cabinet Office have put the registration for HMSO licensing on-line, so you can turn round and get an immediate registration which saves three weeks per person but has not meant that we have cut the staff, in the very small unit, but the speed with which we are dealing with the cases which come our way is particularly fast. Within the NAO report is the example of the Planning Inspectorate, which I have had some previous experience of managing, which is a demand-led organisation. Some of that is about controlling demand, being able to give better information back to the public about what is happening. There might be a time when you would cut the staff, but you might just want to get the service meeting some delivery targets first before you did.

  42. If I said to you that you could take 20 per cent out of the cost of staffing over ten years, of the two million not involved in providing direct services up to 40 per cent could be replaced, would you think I was talking complete nonsense?
  (Mavis McDonald) I would not necessarily know whether there was any validity in that argument at all.

  Chairman: I did not think we were going to get much further, but it was worth a try.

Mr Jenkins

  43. I was rather surprised at Mr Pinder's opening comment when he said "we are confident that by 2005 we shall meet our targets". When you use the word "confident" what exactly do you mean?
  (Mr Pinder) I am not entirely sure that I said I was confident. The language I used was that we asked Departments to produce strategies which were their plans to get to the 2005 targets. We have been through two rounds of that now. All those plans, from all the Government Departments, show that they are on track to deliver all their services by 2005 on-line. The plans are there to do it. Two factors then come into play. One is whether they can deliver on their plans, whether they can deliver on their IT projects and the changes in culture and so on which are necessary to get them there. That is a dependency which is really down to the individual Departments and their delivery. The next important thing is, having got those services on-line, are they done in an attractive enough way to be used.

  44. You are basing your confident prediction on the information given to you by the project leaders.
  (Mr Pinder) Information given to me by the Heads of Department, each of whom has written to me with their e-strategies twice now. We had the last round of that towards the end of last year. These strategies are published. They are published on Departments' websites or on our own website, so obviously available to the NAO as well. People can examine them and see what Departments are saying to us. These are plans not just by project managers, but by the Heads of those Departments who put forward their e-strategies, for example in the Cabinet Office.

  45. Would you think Departments would have sufficient knowledge to judge whether this project was going to be delivered on time or do they rely on the project leaders?
  (Mr Pinder) That is really a matter for OGC because they have been looking in particular at Departments' capabilities of delivering on the whole IT projects to get these services on-line. In overall terms, absolutely, the Permanent Secretaries do understand what is going on in their Departments and they take responsibility for it and are accountable right down through the Departments. One then has to rely on the processes in place to make sure the IT projects are well managed and Hugh Barrett from OGC is doing quite a lot of work in that area and could comment on that if you like.
  (Mr Barrett) The big change we have seen in the last 12 months is that as of December all major IT projects within central civil government have senior responsible owners in place, which is one of the recommendations from the 2000 Successful IT report. That step forward made Departments' ability to manage those projects much greater than it was in the past. That is a very major step forward in capability to deliver IT enabled business change projects.

  46. That seems very good. I notice that with regard to the Home Office system which we tried to put in place just for passing details of probationers into the system, we had seven project managers. The first six would no doubt tell you everything was fine and the last one would ask how it got in such a mess.
  (Mr Barrett) That is why the gateway process, to which I referred earlier, has been put in place. It is an independent check, through the life of a project, to make sure that that cannot happen for projects in the future.

  47. You amaze me. What percentage of all the project leaders actually stayed in place for the development and delivery of that project?
  (Mr Barrett) I am afraid I do not have that data.

  48. Why? You just said this could not happen again. You have done a lot of work to ensure how many are in place, where they are and whether they will be there at the end of the budget.
  (Mr Barrett) What I was referring to was the gateway process ensuring that there was an independent check at various stages in the project, that things needed to make the project successful were in place. For example, there were robust business cases, that the procurement strategy was sound, that there was stakeholder buy-in, that all the things which needed to be done to deliver projects were done. The gateway process is an independent check. We are not relying on an individual, the project manager within a Department to say that has been done; it is an independent check that that is happening.

  49. So you cannot guarantee that these project managers in a very fast changing world will not lose confidence, drive, enthusiasm for any particular project they are on and shift and go to the private sector or leave and just go.
  (Mr Barrett) I cannot guarantee that, no.

  50. So we have this terrible evolving situation where projects can fall down and the person to blame has just walked away.
  (Mr Barrett) The key thing is to have skilled expert people running the projects. The gateway process looks at whether that is the case. If you have a sound set of processes and methodologies in place in an individual project, then you become less reliant on the expertise and knowledge of an individual project leader. You are right that at the end of the day you cannot guarantee that somebody will not move to another Department, move to the private sector; that happens.

  51. Departments have in place at present baseline methodologies to assess the extent to which efficiency improvements made by IT have been achieved.
  (Mr Barrett) Yes, they have made some progress towards that.

  52. If these methodologies are not all in place, which methodologies are we discussing now? Just the fact that the programme will be on target? Because the programme cannot be on target unless you have the rest of the package in place.
  (Mr Barrett) Correct.

  53. So that is the part which is missing.
  (Mr Barrett) There is still work which needs to be done within a number of Departments to ensure that business cases are robust. As an example, as of December last year, 77 per cent of Government Departments reported that they were following OGC guidance on the development and use of business cases. By analogy, 23 per cent were not. One of the focuses of the work the OGC is doing in the next six months is to work to improve that percentage and get more Departments to follow our guidance in that particular area.

  54. So we are in the process of shifting a lot of these old methodologies and systems from what were traditionally paper-based into IT and we are looking for the improvement which can be made and all our new strategies will be IT based.
  (Mr Barrett) That is not necessarily true.

  55. Any reason why we should not be looking at that?
  (Mr Barrett) Which strategies are you talking about?

  56. A lot of the stuff we have in Government is paper-based systems.
  (Mr Barrett) Yes.

  57. We should look to move towards an IT base which I suggest is not just the reproduction of the paper-based system, but by using IT, we can shorten it, we can streamline it, we can bring other activities in, etcetera. We can bring in the fact that for the first time the customer has a role to play in this so we look at it with a different philosophy.
  (Mr Barrett) Provided there is a sound business case, then the answer to that question is yes.

  58. Has that been done across most Departments, all Departments?
  (Mavis McDonald) In the process of drawing up their spending review proposals, all Departments are asked to look at the capacity to make use of either e-support to themselves, to their own infrastructure or service delivery. Those Departments which are working on detailed delivery of plans already—and increasingly Departments will be working on detailed delivery plans for their PSA—are also asked to look at those opportunities and to make sure they re not missing them. They ought to be picking them up in their own strategies, but as new priorities come on board or the focus of a particular objective of Ministers changes, then Departments are always asked to look at those.

  59. Our UK online portal provides a single access. What is the daily average use of this site? Do you know?
  (Mavis McDonald) It is about one million hits a week. I am not quite sure what the daily figures are.[3]

  (Mr Pinder) We prefer not to use this expression `hits' because it is a fairly —

3   Note by witness: This figure is incorrect. There are in fact between 2.2m and 5.1m hits a week. Back

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