Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. I understand that. That is a very generous view of human nature. It has quite often been my experience that there will be a number of people involved in a partnership who do not want to be there and their organisation does not want to be there either, they are only there because the partnership is the one that has got the money.
  (Ms Eisenstadt) Yes.

  121. I am not quite clear in a sense whether or not there are any lessons that we can learn from that situation to avoid it occurring. Is there anything that has not been picked up in the report already? It seemed to me that was a major difficulty in the report.
  (Ms Eisenstadt) The interesting thing is the only way to avoid that is about joint accountability, from the very top, this is why the top to the bottom is very important. The most important joined up is at the point of delivery, nothing else matters, it is for the end user. It is for the end user, if there are multiple issues and they need somebody that is going to help them lead through multiple agencies. They do not want lots of agencies, they want one that can do lots of things for them. The only way you can get one person at the point of delivery that can do lots of things for them is for the managers of those services to invest something in that one across the range of professionals. The only way that happens from the central government right through to the end deliverer is for ministers to say I want this to happen. If ministers do not say they want this to happen it is unlikely it is going to happen. My experience on the ground is that the good provider will always work in a joined up way. It is their manager who will sometimes support it and sometimes will not.

  122. I understand in terms of ministers taking a view, clearly sometimes you have been dealing with local authorities who do not necessarily see themselves being beholden to ministers and in many cases will take the view that these are projects which come along with chunks of money they thought they should have and there is bound to be a degree of resentment, smart people coming from the outside and poaching. They feel they have been struggling for years and you are coming into take these things forward. I am not quite clear how best you have dealt with that.
  (Ms Eisenstadt) We are dealing with that in a couple of ways, that is the problem, there is sometimes resentment on the part of local government and on the part of the health service. There is also resentment in terms of poaching staff. There are real problems in terms of the public sector work force, people want to do our jobs. The way we are trying to get round that is a particular piece of work we are involved in right now, which is piloting mainstream, giving to local authorities small amounts of money to say, what would you do in your city to make Sure Start work everywhere and to join it up? You should not need the amount of money that a single Sure Start programme has. We are doing some pilot work on trying to bring in mainstream providers, there is no point of this unless we change the practice of mainstream providers, because poor children do not only live in these patches.

  123. The easy bit is putting new money into new projects. The difficult bit is the issue of mainstream providers. I do not think this gives me much evidence you have cracked it so far.
  (Ms Eisenstadt) We have not cracked it yet, we are working on it.

Mr Jenkins

  124. This is the easy part because I am Mr Nice Guy. I do not believe that we are looking at a concept, because a concept has been taken and developed into a policy. It has been implemented and we have to examine the implementation and we have to learn from this examination and see how we can improve that. That is one of the things I always struggle with, because in a previous life when the inspectors came in they would go through a department, come back with a report, look at the report and think, yes, I agree with that, 80 per cent I knew before we started but there are certain parts I did not know and there are other parts I really thought seriously about. This is a fresh pair of eyes, they have come in here, they have looked at it and I am now going to readjust my priorities. What in this report made you adjust your priorities? Was there a point you thought, yes, we need to put more emphasis on a particular section? Which was it?
  (Mavis McDonald) My own personal response to that is that I thought that the NAO started to get into some interesting issues about the interaction between accountability and the delivery of objectives and the extent to which actually the accountability arrangements might help or hinder that. We were talking amongst ourselves before we came and we thought some of that would be quite helpful because there are occasions where some very sharp accountability actually can focus minds very hard. There are other kinds of programmes, this is one not mentioned in the Report, like the New Deal for Communities for example where the money is predicated on the local communities working up a plan. In that case it is a single line of accountability. Experience suggests that they found it quite difficult to get going, maybe thinking about it there was not enough clarity about exactly what the outputs were. I think it got better over time. I think in that area, as I said earlier, I do not think we have crossed some of the issues and sorted them out in our own minds about accountability arrangements in relation to some of these varied ways of working.

  125. Can I ask each of your colleagues, what did you get from the Report?
  (Ms Eisenstadt) What I thought was most challenging for us was the comment in the Report about how complex our accountability arrangements are. I accept that. I think our problem with that is that if you allow a lot of diversity at ground level it makes your accountability more complicated. If we had standardised inputs then the accountability is easier. We fought against standardised inputs because we did not think all communities need the same thing. Because we wanted to free it up at ground level it makes the accountability more complex. That to me is a really important lesson.

  126. You have that accountability cracked, you really feel you can answer for it?
  (Ms Eisenstadt) I feel I can answer for it, but I do not feel we have it cracked.

  127. I think you have to, because one day you might be in here answering for it.
  (Ms Casey) Reading it as a whole for me it is the question about delivery. You get buy-in from people when you are analysing what a problem is, you get buy-in from people, as your colleague said, when you are setting up a new unit. You get buy-in from people when you want to make the world a better place. It is a question of whether you get buy-in from people when you are delivering, and some of the tensions around that, which I felt the NAO very carefully drew out actually.
  (Ms Hogbin) Having clear objectives for the business link network is the thing we took from this and the need to act quickly when we see things going off the rails. That was one of the points that was made here. We need to have very clear ideas of what we are trying to achieve and measure progress against that.
  (Mr Mitchell) The important message for the Treasury is about having really good measures of effectiveness when have you complicated joined-up structures.

  128. What is your priority with regard to joined-up working? Is to improve the delivery of service themselves or merely to cut costs by the value-for-money exercise?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think it has to be the former, if you can achieve the latter as well, which you should be looking to do anyway, then you should try and achieve that. The prime focus has to be the objective you are seeking to achieve.

  129. Do you all feel the same way?
  (Ms Eisenstadt) The key objective is better outcomes for children for us, we believe that in the long-term that does save money.

  130. That is the answer I would expect, I would not expect any other answer to be honest. We will find out the outcome in later years if we do get that quality of service. One of the things that worries us, you can go back to Figure 1.7 on page 20. On defining the actual goals we have two brilliant examples, one cost us one heck of a lot of money, when the Department and Post Office Counters basically could not agree what they wanted as an outcome. When you have this type of example in front of you, the next one is the British Libraries, what measures have you got, what powers do you have, what methods of persuasion do you have to ensure this does not continually reoccur in government?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think the prime tool we have now is the Office of Government Commerce and their development of the gateway management approach to a project, where they have started with IT projects, and rolled them out, it is getting an independent assessment done of the risk of achieving what you need to achieve to get to the desired end result at various points in the project, either from the beginning or stock taking and going through and trying on the back of that to build up much better project management skills at two levels, one the intelligent customer amongst the more senior people in the departments and, secondly, a stronger power of people that have experience and know how to manage programme themselves.

  131. How confident are you, 90 per cent, 95 per cent or 100 per cent that this system is going to be implemented rigorously?
  (Mavis McDonald) I am confident that it is going to be implemented. There is work currently in hand identifying the most significant projects and how they are going to be assessed and taken forward, what help departments might need to ensure that they stay on track, which Peter Gershon from the Office of Government Commerce is working on with a number of us who are part of a central group who meet on delivery of these services.

  132. You feel that departments have a sufficient range of indicators to assess performance of these joint working initiatives?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think this is quite tricky. If you look at something like neighbourhood renewal, which is one of the bigger reports of the Social Exclusion Unit, the whole range of activities that are encompassed in developing neighbourhood renewal does involve mainstreaming of departments' approaches to deprived neighbourhoods as well as having specific programmes. That is quite a big task, pulling that kind of endeavour together. That is why it has got quite a lot of machinery around it. I think we are learning as we go along. That is pulling together a wide range of players at all levels, national, regional, local and neighbourhood level, and keeping the kind of top down integration while you are trying to get a better end result on the ground for everybody which is horizontal is quite a complex set of matrix management issues, not all of which we have handled on quite that scale before.

  133. I have got to be careful now because I do not want to lose my reputation of being Mr Nice Guy. Are you now fully confident that the mechanisms are in place, that we have got this method of working across Government and we are going to extend this into more joint working arrangements, and if so what are the incentives to bring departments into these joint working arrangements?
  (Mavis McDonald) I did not wish to infer that I was fully confident that everything is perfect in terms of everybody being fully aware. The world changes around us all the time, new issues arise, new thinking needs to be developed, like Sue Richards' points about IT and service delivery. A whole raft of issues that are emerging there that may change our thinking about the way we work together. I do think that the key tool is the one I keep coming back to, the one about improving Public Service Agreements, the underpinning SDAs, the way in which they are articulated, they are measured and monitored by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office who work together at ministerial level on this. That is the system that has got the broadest spread across everybody. If you add to that the way in which cross-cutting issues are now being picked up regularly in the spending reviews and rolled forward, there is not just a spending review and it stops, the process actually checks what happens, what has gone wrong, then that framework needs to be as solid and stable as the underpinning to give you that assurance that you are unpicking things.

  134. Yes, and that is the problem, is it not?
  (Mavis McDonald) That is the main tool. Then there are lots of other different ways in which you can add to that at either ministerial committee level or at task force level. I feel strongly myself that the regional offices, now they cover a much wider range, have a bigger role to play in feeding back to Whitehall what the total impact of policies on the ground can be.

  135. It is that rigour that is lacking in Whitehall, is it not?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think we are developing it much more closely. I think the whole thrust of the Prime Minister's focus on delivery is about getting that down through—

  136. But in the longer term we are dead, that is the problem, because it is the speed at which it is rolled out, how much rigour you have got there and how much feedback is brought back in as quickly as possible to ensure we are on the right track. I do not want to go down this track and then five years later find out that we have got the wrong map or we are going in the wrong direction. I would like to feel that the people around it have got the confidence to say "we are right, we are achieving targets, and this is how we can prove we are achieving our targets".
  (Mavis McDonald) I do not totally agree with you, if I may say so.

  137. By all means. I do not want to lose my reputation.
  (Mavis McDonald) You can have programmes where it is quite clear that it is going to be a long timescale before you can actually see whether you would really significantly change something, like Naomi's programme or like changing transport systems. The Government might have ten year plans but it would be wrong if it was not evaluating as it went along what worked and what did not work to deliver those objectives and taking stock. That is partly what improved risk management or programme management is about. That is an area that we touched on last time I was in front of the Committee and which, again, is part of our attempt to improve the way in which we make policy and then we think about implementation and we monitor implementation of policy.

  138. One of the things which I always find amazing about voluntary groups is if you have got to go into the local delivery pattern and you are working not just with agencies or local government but also these voluntary groups, who get nothing from the state, raise their own money, were set up many years ago, they have got their own little organisation, they come in. Is it a model? Is there a best way to approach it? Have we developed that model?
  (Mavis McDonald) Can I ask my colleagues to give you some examples from the ground?

  139. Not just an example, a methodology. Is there a way to get it done?
  (Ms Eisenstadt) There is, but many of the organisations actually do get money from local government and even get money from Central Government. There are thousands of organisations that get no money at all and they tend to be self-help groups and they tend to be very much about pressure groups and about how things are done and not delivering themselves. The important thing is engaging the very tiny local right through to the big nationals. That is what you need to do for the distinctive things that they bring because the assumption is the voluntary sector is a single thing and of course it is not. The big nationals can be as bureaucratic as we can be and very tiny ones are very hard to get hold of and you need to do a lot of very detailed local work to get them involved. That is particularly important in terms of faith groups.

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