Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. So does that not make the 25 per cent attainment in it being set as a clear management objective a sort of woeful figure?
  (Mrs McDonald) No, I do not think so. I think I agree with Brian. Departments have been asked to set a variety of objectives. They have been working within the PSA/SDA framework which has been asking them to articulate their objectives for the last three and a half years or so. So they would think have they got a particular objective about risk management and a lot of them may well not have done. I think what we would say now, particularly having looked at the returns we have got, is that actually what really matters is that people are embedding risk management into their basic business planning processes, they are going to report to senior levels through that particular process and that they will tie the development of their thinking into that process.

  21. There is quite a good example on page nine, is there not, from the Home Office, the Home Detention Curfew Scheme.
  (Mrs McDonald) Yes.

  22. Which departments do not have such commendable examples?
  (Mrs McDonald) I cannot answer that question in a straight answer. I can give you other case studies where other departments or indeed some of the cross cutting units in the Cabinet have adopted that kind of approach but a number of departments have piloted in different ways different approaches and some of them have piloted cross cutting approaches. So the new local Public Service Agreements, for example, which have been piloted, would be a different way of taking that kind of thinking forward.

  23. Is the Home Office a good example of a department that is taking this forward and at the forefront of risk assessment?
  (Mr Glicksman) I think there are individual projects in individual departments.

  24. Which department has the most projects which are most commendable?
  (Mr Glicksman) I do not think I know the answer to that question.

  25. Is that not a big problem for us, the people responsible for implementing risk assessment do not actually know which departments have got the most worst examples? It is hard to tell the senior civil servants in other departments "Go and have a look at that department".
  (Mrs McDonald) I think our role as central department is two fold really, to ensure that people have proper systems in place and that there are systems to pick up and monitor at various points what is going on in that kind of systemic approach. It is actually for individual departments to kind of take an overview on their individual projects and we just do not have that kind of information in the centre to be able to answer a question directly.

  26. If a department tells you they have got a wonderful system in place, how do you evaluate that?
  (Mr Glicksman) There will be a process, it is not in place yet, but under the new arrangements for statements of internal control there will be a process for accounting officers to have to report every year on their systems for managing risk. That process will be reviewed by the NAO when they audit the accounts. We will have an opinion from the NAO about whether what the accounting officer is saying is reliable or not. That is not in place yet.

  27. What concerns me is that your offices, and your office in particular, has a pivotal role in driving forward an awareness of risk management, the value of risk management and the implementation of risk management but you are not able to tell me which departments seem to be good at it and which are not, is that right?
  (Mrs McDonald) Yes, because we have not done that relative assessment in a ranking order of either the returns we asked for or the information that the Treasury has got. What we can quote is different examples of where particular bits of good practice have come forward in the way in which the NAO report does and promote them through a variety of means. We do it through things like accreditation schemes or competitions or we are setting up a public sector benchmarking scheme but we have not got a system where we have an overview which ranks. Our role is kind of promotion, as I said, it is showing the systems are in place to take their responsibilities.

  28. What we have is Whitehall imposing things like league tables on schools and league tables on hospitals but no league tables on itself?
  (Mrs McDonald) I think there are certain areas in which we do publish relative figures, like, for example, how departments are progressing against diversity targets in equal opportunities. We have not gone down that route.

  29. When we come to deliberate on your evidence, we are not going to be able to sit down and say "Well, actually, that great Home Office example is illustrative of a department which is doing a good job and has a number of such schemes as against another department".
  (Mrs McDonald) I think if you look at the survey and the way in which the NAO have approached the report which was finding good practice examples, taking an overview of what departments said but, again, not particularly ranking that information, the information we have subsequently got gives us the opportunity to follow up particular areas where we think there are concerns. We were talking about early warning systems earlier, if we think that a particular department looks as though its early warning systems are poor we have two routes in our scheme to follow that up. One is we could ask them directly following the assessment of the reports. Secondly, we could pick it up in the PSA/SDA quarterly monitoring meetings where we and the Treasury jointly brief ministers and senior officials who are going to take those meetings. Thirdly, it can be picked up as part of the overview of the statements of internal control and any audit comments that the NAO may want to make to us.
  (Mr Glicksman) I think we have to bear in mind as well that departments are very disparate in the sorts of activities that they are responsible for. It is not like local authorities delivering the same service in different parts of the country.

  30. On something like the passport issue and problem, why did the quarterly monitoring committee not pick that up? It failed even though the timing had been two or three years in its implementation.
  (Mrs McDonald) I am sorry. I really do not know very much about the timescale and time frame over which that project was developed. I think it probably started before the PSA/SDA monitoring system was started. I hope something like that will be picked up under the major IT projects monitoring arrangements we are now introducing between the Office of the E-Envoy and the Office of Government Commerce.

  31. How important is it for departments to provide training on risk assessment?
  (Mrs McDonald) Very important.

  32. If I told you 86 per cent do not, what would you say?
  (Mrs McDonald) I think I would probably say 86 per cent did not but, again, we have done quite a lot of work ourselves. The College, in both the general training courses, provides elements which cover risk management and risk assessment. There are a number of specific bespoke courses which people have asked both the Treasury and the College to put together and help them develop. The Orange Book itself actually provides a much better framework of advice and basic thinking about how to handle risk that departments can use when they are developing their own risk frameworks.

  33. What is the figure now? It was 14 per cent when this report was written.
  (Mrs McDonald) I do not have that information. We would have to do something, which we may well want to do, which is a repeat of the kind of survey of all the bodies which were covered in that survey to get that information. The survey covered not just the main departments in which we got most information but all NDPBs and agencies as well.

  34. Sticking to Government departments, which department do you think is the best department in achieving training targets in this area?
  (Mrs McDonald) I think I would have to say on the basis of my own personal knowledge the Cabinet Office is as good as any.

  Chairman: A completely impartial view.

Mr Griffiths

  35. Are you saying in the context of 86 per cent failures?
  (Mrs McDonald) I do not have that detailed knowledge. I do know we had a system of workshops which covered the whole of the Cabinet Office across the summer.

  36. Right. Do any other departments have that sort of thing?
  (Mrs McDonald) Yes, some of them did but I do not know who without looking into the detail.

  37. Well, feel free to consult behind you because I would like to know who does not. Who is not? Why are we not naming and shaming?
  (Mrs McDonald) Because we do not have the information on which to do it. We are in a process of development which started with the survey which took place early last year and where a lot of activity and work designed to raise everybody's consciousness of the importance of this agenda has been going on subsequently. I would expect a lot of the figures in the survey to have improved significantly if we repeat it later on this year or early next year.
  (Mr Glicksman) We know certainly from the returns that we got that training is a high priority for departments. They do recognise it is an area that they need to address. I would hope that it is something they are seeking to improve on.

  38. All the time in the past year or so you do not seem to have had that sort of monthly or whatever quarterly monitoring of departments to be able to tell this Committee which ones were training and which were not training?
  (Mrs McDonald) We are talking about a framework where we have asked them to go away and think harder about what they have done and what they need to do to put proper risk management frameworks within their systems of overall control. So we have actually asked them to go away and think about how they would improve what they are doing. We are taking stock of the information we have got back and, as I said a few minutes ago, if we think we do not have enough information then we can repeat something like the survey. We do not have anything which gives a comprehensive update of the material in the report in the kind of form in which it is presented.

  Mr Steinberg: There was a great risk I would fall asleep when I read the report. I must admit the pictures are nice but I did not understand the pictures either.

  Chairman: I thought you would like the one about swimming with sharks.

Mr Steinberg

  39. Yes. Why does a shark—No, I will not do that one. Is risk taking something which has gone on for years in Government departments?
  (Mrs McDonald) I think quite a lot of what every day business is about is about risk taking. The question is whether people were aware that was what they were doing and whether they had fully appreciated that they ought to be assessing the risk consequences of what they were doing and thinking about what risks were acceptable and what were not, what they could know about, what they could not know about and how they proposed to monitor and manage that risk whatever it was that their project policy development ruled out.

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