The Reluctant Armchair Auditor

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Coalition roasted on Quango bonfire

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Many public sector professionals will, like me, have sighed and shrugged a resigned shoulder this morning in reading today’s report of the Public Administration Select Committee Shrinking the Quango State.

Those unfamiliar with the formulation of public policy and its implementation probably still find the flaws PASC found in the government’s review of Quangos shocking. Sadly. I don’t. Here’s a sample of what the committee found.

This review was poorly managed.

There was no meaningful consultation.

The tests the review used were not clearly defined.

The Cabinet Office failed to establish a proper procedure for departments to follow.

The Bill giving the Government the power to bring about these changes was … badly drafted.

The Government has failed to recognise the realities of the modern world.

Much will be written about the report today. What is striking to me is the no-holds-barred language used by PASC. The Committee was deeply unimpressed by what it found. The findings themselves leave me, as an armchair auditor, deeply pessimistic about the government’s stewardship of public funds.

Let’s start at the beginning. Any change process in any business usually has some rationale for being started: the business case. PASC found the business case for the changes proposed by government had shifted around. It was about saving money. Then it was about improving accountability. No, wait a minute it’s about both. With such a muddled start no wonder MPs found such a mess when they looked at the decisions the review had given rise to.

The early confusion led to a set of criteria used in the review that were unclear and a dearth of guidance to individual government departments. So Quangos with broadly similar terms of reference, albeit in different fields, have ended up being treated entirely differently. It’s a dogs’ breakfast and contrasts hugely with the diligence applied by local public sector organisations to their own decision-making. What is also striking is the lack of meaningful consultation and engagement between the reviewers and the reviewed (and their stakeholders).

What is deeply troubling is that all the flaws PASC identify could have been addressed if anyone had paid any attention to the findings of one of the many reviews of governmental lash-ups over the years produced either by the NAO or, indeed, the Audit Commission. Institutional memory seems to be in short supply now the government has declared Year Zero.

For us armchair auditors the PASC report raises ominous question marks over the quality of decision-making in other key areas such as the NHS reforms where similar rumblings about decision-making are already growing. The government has embarked on a radical reform agenda which it has often clothed in the threads of spending reduction. As PASC says,

… the Government faces the much larger challenge of successfully implementing these reforms; any organisation would struggle with changes on this scale.

It’s not at all clear that the machinery of government is up to the task particularly as ministers chop capacity out of their ‘back offices’ i.e exactly the people you need to deliver change if you want the frontline to really focus on the frontline. It’s a recipe for confusion that management consultants everywhere will be looking on and smacking their lips with anticipation.

We risk ending up where other reform programmes have found themselves: vast amounts of money spent with no noticeable improvement in public services or their accountability. Bad enough in economic good times surely indefensible given the problems we face right now.

Written by reluctantarmchairauditor

January 7, 2011 at 9:46 am