Select Committee on Public Accounts Twenty-Eighth Report


TWENTY-EIGHTH REPORT


The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed to the following Report:

BETTER PUBLIC SERVICES THROUGH JOINT WORKING

INTRODUCTION AND LIST OF CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Reports by this Committee have highlighted the potential for improvement in the quality of public services and value for money if departments work together. Our Report on hospital bed management showed that two million bed days had been lost each year because of delays in discharging people who were fit to leave hospital. Two thirds of beds were occupied by people over 65 and a key factor in their delayed discharge was the difficulty in finding them places in community facilities, emphasising the need for better joint working between NHS agencies and social services departments. Our Report on the criminal justice system identified considerable scope for savings of the order of £85 million through better co-ordination. We found that the criminal justice system was some way from having the information base needed to enable organisations to plan and manage the system effectively.[1]

2. On the basis of a Report[2] by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we examined the action which the Cabinet Office and the Treasury are taking to promote joint working to deliver better public services. We took evidence from the Rough Sleepers Unit, the Sure Start Unit and the Small Business Service as well as the Cabinet Office, on the impact which their joint working initiatives are having on their particular client groups. We draw three main conclusions:

  • Our concern is less with the process of joint working than that it should deliver sustainable improvements in public services. Through consultation and research departments need to assess the particular requirements of their client groups such as the elderly, unemployed and small businesses for whom they share responsibility. Departments need to be sure that reliable and comprehensive information will be available to determine whether sustained improvements in services are being achieved.

  • Joint working can take a variety of forms - from establishing new organisations such as British Trade International, bringing together the responsibilities of two departments - to having a dedicated single unit such as Sure Start, to give strategic direction and priority to an important national issue such as child development. However, Departments must ensure that there are clear governance arrangements so that all those organisations required to work together understand their role and responsibilities and have common or complementary objectives.

  • By working together departments can save money by removing overlap and duplication in service delivery and by not reinventing the wheel. Joint working may also result in additional costs such as the new management structure needed for British Trade International and new premises, information systems and training to support Business Link Partnerships. Because many joint working initiatives have not been long established there have been very few evaluations of their cost effectiveness. Departments now need to establish arrangements for assessing the cost effectiveness of joint working arrangements, including the difference they make to the quality of public services and overall value for money achieved.

3. Our more specific conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

On improving public services through joint working

      (i)  The success of joint working can be affected by the financial arrangements. Setting budgets and clear targets as to what is to be achieved while allowing partner organisations to decide how to use the money to meet the targets should enable them to design services which best reflect local circumstances. Closer control may be needed by a central unit to target spending on national priorities. Departments need to give careful consideration to financial arrangements in designing joint working arrangements (paragraph 19).

      (ii)  Reliable information is needed to demonstrate whether expenditure on joint working has achieved what was intended, but keeping the necessary records of expenditure and performance can be a burden for smaller voluntary organisations. Departments should look for ways to integrate different reporting requirements and share information so that organisations only have to provide information in one format to one location (paragraph 20).

      (iii)  Cross-cutting Public Service Agreements covering for example the Criminal Justice System have been established, and include joint targets which several departments share responsibility for achieving. The Treasury should ensure that there is regular public reporting of the outcomes achieved by these cross-cutting Public Service Agreements (paragraph 21).

      (iv)  Civil servants need appropriate skills to know when joint working is likely to be the best way of delivering a service and how to design and implement joint working successfully. Such skills include the ability to think innovatively and flexibly, to understand the cultures and values of partner organisations, and to be able to work collectively and negotiate around difficulties. Civil servants are more likely to possess these skills if they have a range of experience of working in different departments as well as in the private or voluntary sector. The Civil Service reform programme should focus on widening civil servants' experience through more secondments to the private and voluntary sectors, by encouraging civil servants to work in a greater number of departments and in different specialisms, and by providing practical training in different types of joint working (paragraph 22).

On the impact of joint working

      (v)  For three of the five joint working initiatives examined by the Comptroller and Auditor General it was either too early to measure their impact or more work was needed to provide firm data. Departments should ensure that appropriate performance measurement systems are in place together with arrangements for collecting reliable and comprehensive information (paragraph 27).

      (vi)  The drive and leadership shown by the Rough Sleepers Unit has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of people counted as sleeping rough. The Unit is now turning its attention to those who have been least receptive to their help, and who are often the most vulnerable because they have longer term health, drug and alcohol problems. In continuing to develop its strategy to combat rough sleeping the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should encourage NHS Trusts and local authorities to work closely with the Unit to help long term rough sleepers (paragraph 28).

      (vii)  Joint working initiatives such as the Rough Sleepers programme often rely on funds provided by both central and local government. In assessing the cost effectiveness of such programmes all of this expenditure should be included so that the full cost of the joint working arrangement can be reported and can be considered in relation to the outputs and improvements in services achieved (paragraph 29).

On accountability

      (viii)  The Cabinet Office is promoting joint working through training and the promulgation of good practice, as an important means of delivering better public services. Departments too should publicise in their annual reports and elsewhere how they are working together and what this has achieved in terms of tangible improvements in public services (paragraph 33).

      (ix)  The Cabinet Office has a role to promote initiatives such as joint working, but their implementation is the responsibility of departments. The Cabinet Office sought to answer our questions as fully as possible but lacked first hand information on the extent to which joint working is actually happening in practice and contributing to better value for money. The Rough Sleepers Unit, the Sure Start Unit and the Small Business Services were better able to answer our specific questions. In examining the impact of centrally led initiatives to improve value for money and public services the Committee will in future also seek evidence from Accounting Officers directly responsible for implementing these initiatives (paragraph 34).

      (x)  The Cabinet Office thought that traditional forms of accountability had contributed to departments' "silo" mentally, and should be adapted to promote the delivery of cross-cutting programmes for which a number of departments had some responsibility. Through this hearing and others such as those on the criminal justice system, risk management, and tackling obesity, the Committee has been ready to adapt the accountability arrangements where responsibility is shared by more than one department. In our experience, however, there is still room for stronger joint accountability and reporting on the part of departments (paragraph 35).

IMPROVING PUBLIC SERVICES THROUGH JOINT WORKING

4. Better co-ordination and joint working between the range of organisations — departments, local authorities, hospital trusts, voluntary organisations and the private sector — involved in the delivery of public services have the potential to improve the quality of public services. Departments have been too concerned with achieving their own objectives with funding they can directly control, and have given insufficient attention to the wider impact which cross-cutting programmes can have on groups in society such as children, the elderly and the long term unemployed. When programmes are uncoordinated their individual impacts can be reduced. Programmes and policies need to be designed so that they are better interconnected and mutually supportive, thus increasing their chances of success.[3]

5. Joint working should improve the accessibility of public services, and the speed with which they are delivered, for example by delivering services through "one stop shops" and by people only having to provide information once and to one co-ordinated government office. Joint working also has potential to improve value for money by removing overlap in the delivery of services, helping to drive out waste and inefficiency in interconnected processes, and enabling organisations to harness their collective purchasing power and realise economies of scale.[4]

6. Joint working can take different forms ranging from informal relationships with partners having considerable discretion to more structured approaches, such as Sure Start partnerships, with targets, milestones and clearly defined methods of working. Alternatively, a number of organisations can be brought together or realigned in a new single organisation such as British Trade International.[5]

7. The Cabinet Office and the Treasury are responsible for promoting joint working and monitoring its achievement. The Cabinet Office told us that earlier programmes such as the Single Regeneration Budget had brought different objectives together in one programme. However, more attention was now being given to promoting joint working between departments and local government, and with new organisations such as the Regional Development Agencies.[6]

Determining Whether Joint Working is Needed

8. Asked how departments decided whether a joint approach was needed, the Cabinet Office said that in designing policies departments were now required to focus more on the needs of those intended to benefit from a policy rather than those who would have to implement it. Considering a service from the perspective of those using it should help determine whether a joint approach was the best way of meeting their needs. The public expenditure review process now involved much more cross-cutting reviews. As part of the Cabinet Office the Delivery Unit was promoting best practice in its work with departments to improve service delivery, and the Office of Public Service Reform would be helping to develop leadership skills to promote joint working.[7]

Tackling barriers to joint working

9. In 1998 half of the Business Link partnerships set up to improve the competitiveness of small firms considered that a lack of co-ordination between central government departments was an important barrier to partnership development. We asked what was being done to help departments tackle such barriers. The Small Business Service said that the variety of different funding streams financing Business Links made it appear that departments were not working together. One of the main objectives of the Small Business Service was to create more cohesion.[8]

10. The Comptroller and Auditor General found that when the Rough Sleepers Unit did not provide direct funding it could be difficult for it to influence local authorities and NHS Trusts to treat rough sleepers as a priority. The Cabinet Office said that this was not always so as sometimes spending small amounts of money to bring people together could nevertheless impact on the wider behaviour of organisations. For example, the Neighbourhood Renewal programme had brought together people who previously had not worked together.[9]

11. An example of money being wasted through a lack of joint working is bed blocking in hospitals, where because local social services departments may have insufficient funds to provide home support, older patients have to stay in hospital longer than necessary. We asked whether the NHS or the Department of Work and Pensions were responsible and what action was being taken to resolve bed blocking. The Treasury told us that there were a variety of reasons why beds became blocked, such as the lack of sufficient professional therapists to give older people with broken legs the therapy they needed to be able to walk; the lack of flexible domiciliary services for people to be looked after at home; or insufficient residential or nursing home places. The Treasury said that additional funds had been allocated to tackle bed blocking, subject to the Department of Health determining the key problems to be addressed. The opportunity to establish care trusts also made it possible for responsibility for older people to be vested in a single organisation.[10]

12. Another example of the need for joint working is the provision of support to promote early learning development for pre-school children as part of the Sure Start Partnership. We asked to what extent Sure Start liaised with the National Play Group Association and why in some rural areas there were still difficulties in providing support for pre-school children. Sure Start said that the Pre-School Learning Alliance was one of the major providers, working in partnership with the National Childminding Association. Most play groups only offered two hours of child care two to three mornings a week. The Department for Education and Skills was encouraging them to provide care over longer periods, at times which are more convenient for working mothers and which enabled those receiving benefit to go out to work.[11]

13. Local authorities which have been struggling to deal with social issues for many years may resent new units such as Sure Start which have been set up with additional funds and people to tackle these issues in new ways. We asked how this risk was being addressed. Sure Start said that there was sometimes resentment by local government and the health service, who fear that their staff would be poached. The Sure Start Unit was giving local authorities small amounts of money together with discretion as to how they used the funds to improve support for pre-school children. In this way Sure Start was seeking to encourage the main traditional providers of childcare to support their programme. Sure Start accepted, however, that more needed to be done to secure the commitment of all the mainstream providers of childcare across the country to their programme.[12]

14. For small community groups and voluntary organisations, keeping the necessary records of expenditure and data on performance which are essential for accountability can be a considerable administrative and costly burden and a barrier to joint working. We asked how the administrative burden on these smaller organisations was being reduced. The Cabinet Office told us that a cross-cutting spending review was looking at the involvement of the voluntary sector in delivering public services and how to streamline reporting processes. This might mean that departments funding a voluntary organisation would all ask the same kind of questions about its performance, with all departments accepting other departments' accreditation of a voluntary organisation's suitability to be involved in service delivery. In this way voluntary organisations would not have to duplicate costly and time consuming reporting requirements.[13]

Cross-cutting Public Service Agreements

15. To promote more joint working between departments, cross-cutting Public Service Agreements have been introduced which include joint targets that several departments share responsibility for achieving.[14] Currently there are four cross-cutting Public Service Agreements covering the Criminal Justice System, Action against Illegal Drugs, Sure Start and Welfare to Work. We asked how these agreements were helping departments to work together. The Treasury told us that there was some evidence of success. For example, for persistent re-offenders the target for the length of time from arrest to sentence had been halved.[15]

Having the right skills

16. Joint working requires a mix of skills such as project management, marketing, ability to understand the views of community groups, and more specialist skills such as accountancy, information technology and legal advice. For example, a lack of finance skills meant that in the early days of Education Action Zones some zones were spending large sums of public money before they had reliable financial controls in place.[16]

17. Asked whether departments had the rights skills and enough wider experience of working in industry and commerce to make joint working successful, the Cabinet Office told us that there was a significant staff interchange programme. Through this programme some 4,000 people had either come into the Civil Service, or civil servants had worked in other organisations to get wider experience. Of the 202 people appointed to the senior civil service between 1 April 2000 and 1 April 2001, 77 (38 per cent) were career civil servants; 98 (49 per cent) were from the wider public sector; and 27 (13 per cent) were from the private sector.[17]

18. If a civil servant has worked in social services and subsequently works in the Department for Education they are more likely to be able to see ways in which childcare could be better handled. We asked to what extent civil servants would work in three or more departments during their career. The Cabinet Office said that most civil service posts were advertised internally and staff were increasingly recognising that to progress they had to move around to gain wider experience. The Civil Service Reform programme's focus was on broadening civil servants' experience. Experience in different types of areas as well as a number of departments was increasingly becoming a requirement to progress to the senior civil service. About half of those currently in the senior civil service had such experience.[18]

Conclusions

19. The success of joint working can be affected by the financial arrangements. Setting budgets and clear targets as to what is to be achieved while allowing partner organisations to decide how to use the money to meet the targets should enable them to design services which best reflect local circumstances. Closer control may be needed by a central unit to target spending on national priorities. Departments need to give careful consideration to financial arrangements in designing joint working arrangements.

20. Reliable information is needed to demonstrate whether expenditure on joint working has achieved what was intended, but keeping the necessary records of expenditure and performance can be a burden for smaller voluntary organisations. Departments should look for ways to integrate different reporting requirements and share information so that organisations only have to provide information in one format to one location.

21. Cross-cutting Public Service Agreements covering for example the Criminal Justice System have been established, and include joint targets which several departments share responsibility for achieving. The Treasury should ensure that there is regular public reporting of the outcomes achieved by these cross-cutting Public Service Agreements.

22. Civil servants need appropriate skills to know when joint working is likely to be the best way of delivering a service and how to design and implement joint working successfully. Such skills include the ability to think innovatively and flexibly, to understand the cultures and values of partner organisations, and to be able to work collectively and negotiate around difficulties. Civil servants are more likely to possess these skills if they have a range of experience of working in different departments as well as in the private or voluntary sector. The Civil Service reform programme should focus on widening civil servants' experience through more secondments to the private and voluntary sectors, by encouraging civil servants to work in a greater number of departments and in different specialisms, and by providing practical training in different types of joint working.

IMPACT OF JOINT WORKING ON IMPROVING PUBLIC SERVICES

23. Joint working should help to deliver better public services and address intractable issues which under traditional ways of working have proved difficult to resolve. The Comptroller and Auditor General found that for the five joint working initiatives which he examined, the work of the Rough Sleepers Unit had contributed to a reduction in the number of people counted as sleeping rough in England from 1,850 in June 1998 to 700 in June 2001. For pre-school children the Early Years Development and Child Care Partnerships had led to 140,000 new childcare places being created against a target of 82,000. For the other three initiatives Sure Start, Business Link partnerships and British Trade International, it was either too early to measure their impact or more work was needed to provide firm data.[19]

24. Asked about the accuracy of the reported reduction in the numbers sleeping rough, the Head of the Rough Sleepers Unit said that the figures were derived from a methodology which had been applied consistently every six to twelve months since 1996. The count was done independently by local authorities and voluntary organisations. A number of organisations such as Thames Reach, St Mungo's, and Focus Housing Group were funded to assess why people slept rough and what help they needed. These organisations and other social workers had the specialist skills to determine the sort of support required, which could range from a bed for a night to help in getting on a drug detoxification programme. Because many rough sleepers had longer term drug, alcohol and mental health problems they were less likely to respond to short term help. They required a range of support including health care, help in combatting their reliance on drugs, advice and support in getting a job as well as accommodation assistance. This support was often required over a longer time period. Rough sleepers included ex-serviceman, and the Unit said that the Ministry of Defence were considering the support it could provide to people who had been members of the armed forces.[20]

25. Before the establishment of the Rough Sleepers Unit the average cost of reducing the numbers sleeping rough was approximately £120,000 per person. In 2001 the average cost had reduced to about £70,000 in real terms, suggesting that the provision of more integrated services including health and social support was more cost effective than the previous arrangements.[21]

26. The Comptroller and Auditor found, however, that the cost of helping rough sleepers only included expenditure by central departments and not that by local authorities and voluntary organisations. We asked the Cabinet Office and the Rough Sleepers Unit why more complete information on the cost of providing support for rough sleepers was not available. They accepted that more complete information was needed on the expenditure of the different organisations involved in seeking to reduce the numbers sleeping rough. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions was considering how to improve the data as part of an evaluation of its rough sleepers strategy.[22]

Conclusions

27. For three of the five joint working initiatives examined by the Comptroller and Auditor General it was either too early to measure their impact or more work was needed to provide firm data. Departments should ensure that appropriate performance measurement systems are in place together with arrangements for collecting reliable and comprehensive information.

28. The drive and leadership shown by the Rough Sleepers Unit has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of people counted as sleeping rough. The Unit is now turning its attention to those who have been least receptive to their help, and who are often the most vulnerable because they have longer term health, drug and alcohol problems. In continuing to develop its strategy to combat rough sleeping the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should encourage NHS Trusts and local authorities to work closely with the Unit to help long term rough sleepers.

29. Joint working initiatives such as the Rough Sleepers programme often rely on funds provided by both central and local government. In assessing the cost effectiveness of such programmes all of this expenditure should be included so that the full cost of the joint working arrangement can be reported and can be considered in relation to the outputs and improvements in services achieved.

ACCOUNTABILITY

30. The Cabinet Office and the Treasury are responsible for promoting joint working and monitoring its achievement. The Cabinet Office said it was doing so in four main ways: developing new thinking; providing guidance and carrying out initiatives to promote good practice; encouraging and facilitating experimentation; and providing training to develop joint working skills. Accountability for these initiatives, and their contribution to sustainable improvement in public services, depended on there being reliable information on their impact. The Cabinet Office said that more still needed to be done to measure the success of their initiatives to promote joint working, but information was available from a number of sources with which to measure success. In particular, the Public Sector Benchmarking Service was providing data on performance across the public sector, and the Charter Mark Scheme was providing some indicators of how the policies underpinning the modernising government programme were working.[23]

31. The Cabinet Office said that it could not be fully confident yet that everyone in the civil service understood and accepted the need to work together. Departments were having to respond to a wide range of new issues affecting the delivery of public services and had to decide the best way to improve services, which might include joint working. However, the Cabinet Office considered that Public Service Agreements, with their focus on delivery, would contribute to better public services as would the work of the Office of Government Commerce, to ensure that major projects were delivered as planned. The Cabinet Office said that for some complex programmes such as neighbourhood renewal the wide range of activities involved made it difficult to bring all the relevant information together into indicators to assess joint working performance.[24]

32. The Cabinet Office said that over the last two to three years the Civil Service Reform Programme had been seeking to change culture and attitudes. Units such as Sure Start and Rough Sleepers had been established to tackle issues which in the past had to compete with larger programmes and had received less attention at senior levels in departments. More emphasis was also being given in Public Service Agreements to setting minimum standards, for example in education, to ensure that the more vulnerable in society did not lose out.[25]

Conclusions

33. The Cabinet Office is promoting joint working through training and the promulgation of good practice, as an important means of delivering better public services. Departments too should publicise in their annual reports and elsewhere how they are working together and what this has achieved in terms of tangible improvements in public services.

34. The Cabinet Office has a role to promote initiatives such as joint working, but their implementation is the responsibility of departments. The Cabinet Office sought to answer our questions as fully as possible but lacked first hand information on the extent to which joint working is actually happening in practice and contributing to better value for money. The Rough Sleepers Unit the Sure Start Unit and the Small Business Services were better able to answer our specific questions. In examining the impact of centrally led initiatives to improve value for money and public services the Committee will in future also seek evidence from Accounting Officers directly responsible for implementing these initiatives.

35. The Cabinet Office thought that traditional forms of accountability had contributed to departments "silo" mentally, and should be adapted to promote the delivery of cross-cutting programmes for which a number of departments had some responsibility. Through this hearing and others such as those on the criminal justice system, risk management, and tackling obesity, the Committee has been ready to adapt the accountability arrangements where responsibility is shared by more than one department. In our experience, however, there is still room for stronger joint accountability and reporting on the part of departments.


1   Committee of Public Accounts, 1st Report, Inpatient Admissions, Bed Management and Patient Discharge in NHS Acute Hospitals (HC 135, Session 2000-01) and 27th Report, Criminal Justice: Working Together (HC 298, Session 1999-2000)  Back

2   C&AG's Report, Joining Up to Improve Public Services (HC 383, Session 2001-02), paras 1, 1.3  Back

3   C&AG's Report, para 1.3  Back

4   C&AG's Report, para 1.5  Back

5   C&AG's Report, para 1.6  Back

6   Q145 Back

7   Q24 Back

8   C&AG's Report, Appendix 6, para 20; Q13 Back

9   C&AG's Report, para 9; Q145  Back

10   Qs 152-153 Back

11   Qs 87-88 Back

12   Qs 123-124 Back

13   C&AG's Report, para 22; Q15  Back

14   Public Service Agreements were first introduced in 1998 setting out each department's objectives for the public services which they are responsible for, together with measurable targets to monitor the delivery of the objectives.  Back

15   Qs 10-12  Back

16   C&AG's Report, para 3.7  Back

17   Qs 35-39; Ev, Appendix 1, p21 Back

18   Qs 72-78 Back

19   C&AG's Report, para 7, Figure 4, para 1.5 Back

20   Qs 25, 43-48, 54, 65, 115-116  Back

21   C&AG's Report, paras 18, 2.9, Figure 15 Back

22   Qs 7, 25  Back

23   C&AG's Report, para 1.9, Figure 11; Q9  Back

24   Qs 131-134 Back

25   Qs 30-34, 112  Back


 
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