Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



40. I am quite a simple Member of Parliament with very complicated people here. I do not understand the complicated words we use. You get a lump of money to do something, you argue how much money you are going to have and you have some people in your department who are going to see where the money goes. If you are going to build a new railway, which I wish you would do, somebody has to plan it—

  (Mr Prescott) That is a matter we inherited.

41. —somebody has to spend money on it, somebody has to buy the land. I do not understand what this complication is about the delivery?

  (Mr Prescott) It is too simple in one aspect, we do not decide where the money goes, that is a matter for the Chancellor or the Government, our job is to make sure that once the money has been decided and how much it is and that they have to produce a certain outcome, and are they going to do it with the machinery they have? That is our responsibility.

42. In your evaluation unit you were evaluating whether you were getting value for money?

  (Mr Prescott) That is certainly a consideration. It is also for the Secretary of State when he negotiates the targets for a PSA target they get it has to show value for money in order to justify this claim or that claim on the budget.

43. The point I am after is this, the American Canadians have suffered from this for many, many years, there is a neurosis in society about value for money and evaluation, you always have to have somebody checking somebody is not spending too much, and so on, and you end up with a bureaucracy which often prevents the delivery of the very thing you want because there are so many people round checking, evaluating and so on. Have you, this is not a facetious question, are you ever going to see yourself evaluating the source round the actual delivery of the goods which is inhibiting the actual delivery because there is so much bureaucracy round it caused by the pressure from the media, by Members of Parliament and everybody else to actually see if you are getting good value for money. The result is that the on cost is enormous.

  (Mr Prescott) It is difficult, I agree. You, no doubt, like the Public Accounts Committee want to see that we are spending money properly and that is a proper way of checking if we are spending money properly. The difficulties for delivery, to which you refer, I wonder whether Gus Macdonald can answer those problems, they are what they have to address them to. We defeat our purpose if it is going to cost us a lot more. That extra cost must be considered as part of the improvement.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I agree with the thrust of what Mr Steen says. We have to have a very clear focus on trying to deliver the outcome that your Parliament voted the money for. I disagree with the journalist who said that we are unfocused. In any organisation you will get confusion on focus but it is our job in the Delivery Unit, in the particular areas of priority, to ensure that that focus is maintained. That is a very tough job for any group of senior managers. I have some sympathy, coming from a management background, with the Civil Service and the task that it faces. Our Delivery Unit is made up of only 30 people but you can see that we will work very closely with the departments because in the end it is the departments with their thousands of staff who must deliver in the leadership of millions of public sector workers. That is why we have try to apply the general principles of reform which came out in the early 1990s in the Citizens' Charter and we, again, tried to update and refocus in our four guiding principles which you have made reference to in your past work. In that way I believe that we through the Delivery Unit can help the departments maintain their focus and find solutions to some of the particular problems. My role is part progress chaser and reporting to the Prime Minister, it is part traffic cop, if you like, to stop the units bumping into one another. As the Deputy Prime Minister says overlapping activities are sometimes quite useful and inevitable if you are looking at cross-cutting activities, there is bit of brokerage involved and there is a bit of management consultancy of a very occasional kind. It is all in an attempt to put delivery at the heart of this administration in a sharper way than was the case in the first four years of the previous administration.


44. Is your sense so far, I know it is very early days, clearly you will review this as you go long, that you really have a structure now that is capable of doing this delivery job that we all know is so central?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It is too early to say given the huge magnitude of the task. What I can say is that we started well in terms of relationships with departments, they have been very ready to meet with us and talk about possible solutions and share their problems. We have already established a very good working relationship with the Treasury. We are working very well with the Deputy Prime Minister's units and his activity and, of course, as the Deputy Prime Minister says, a lot of this activity is in the end clasped together through the Cabinet Committees. The Deputy Prime Minister chairs the Domestic Affairs Committee which is sitting there sharing the central importance in all of this, with the PSX Committee chaired by the Chancellor. We have bound a lot of this together quite quickly. Now the challenge is to see whether we can deliver.
  (Mr Prescott) I think the Committee properly dealt with the examination of what motivates Government to get best value, and we have gone through various things. Privatisation was an idea of getting the market to do it cheaper, it is clearly about cost. Compulsory competitive tendering is another example of that. We have used best value. The concentration has been on cost, what we are trying to say once again is this argument about the quality of the service, can we measure quality and then how can we measure it? That is what we are trying to do. It has not been done that way before. There are difficulties and I am ever hopeful that we will be successful in it. What I am quite sure about is the pursuit of the cost way has not necessarily given us the best value, perhaps we should do it a different way, as, indeed, recommended in your own report.

Brian White

45. I am not sure who one has the responsibility for the e-Envoy. There has been an OFTEL report and several reports recently which point Britain several places down the league table, depending which set of these tables you use. My understanding is that the e-Envoy has something like 100 projects under his wing. I am just curious as to how 100 projects is going to help deliver Britain to be the number one e-business within the next three months, which is the Prime Minister's target?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) As I am sure you are aware Mr White the e-Envoy reports to Patricia Hewitt and the DTI and they also have an e-commerce Minister in Douglas Alexander.[3] My particular interest is in the e-Government side of it. In the progress to date we have established that there are 521 central government services now and of these 42 per cent are available electronically. Our target is to have 73 per cent available by 2002 and, as you know, we are hoping to achieve 100 per cent total by 2005. My particular interest is in that area of e-government. The e-Envoy certainly has a very big job on his hands but I can assure you from my short acquaintance with him in the last 4 months he is very energetic.[4]

46. Most of the actual projects are about e-Government, there are about two or three about e-business. How do those projects actually transform the way that government delivers services?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) First of all, you obviously look at the definition of delivery services and what the definition of electronic delivery is. If are you `phoning a call centre rather than going on the Internet then that would be defined as electronic delivery if they have the means in front of them to call up the information that is coming through to the request from the customer. We have over 1,000 government websites, we are obviously trying to rationalise those through the deployment of UK online for a start. Of course the Government Gateway, which will, as you know, it is a very secure piece of infrastructure, and I think the first of its kind in the world in a public arena, and will allow business to be able to transact with government in way that has not been the case before. Probably most famously the ability to do your self-assessment or PAYE tax, but I am assured by my colleagues that is not yet easy. There is an awful lot of work to be done in some of these areas. We have made a start. The government gateway appears to be one of the leaders in the world. UK online we are trying to develop. We are looking to create more access, as you may know, with the on-line centres, of which there are currently 1,500[5] across the country, and we are aiming to have 6,000 by the end of next year.

47. One of the things that concerns me about the way public service is delivered is the way that we set up pilots and the tick-box mentality, I call it, the Treasury allocates the money so it ticks a box, the department produces a White Paper and it ticks a box, there is project design pilot which is shown to ministers, it is wonderful. That happens in one small geographical area, the rest of the country do not see the improvements and services and at the end of the pilot the people running the pilot have to run around trying to find a replacement for that project money. How do you get those pilots and projects into mainstream delivery across the whole country?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think the Office of the e-Envoy is a way in which those kind of problems you describe are treated much more quickly and seriously than they would been in the past and the appointment of Ministers with special responsibilities in these areas I think also helps in that regard. We have tried to make sure that each department does maintain a strong focus of activity in this area, it has been put very high on their agendas. I have every reason to hope that is being delivered. I will confess that only four months into the job my information is not comprehensive and I suspect my knowledge of this area does not match your own.

48. Can I push you on this a bit, we have a lot of people out there who are spending their time trying to get money to keep very valuable projects going rather than spending money on delivering. Part of that links into the PSA programme and the coming Comprehensive Spending Review, what are you doing in this department to make sure that whole emphasis of changing pilots into mainstream delivery is going to be the focus so that at the end of the four years of this Parliament we will have seen this delivered?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think the next Spending Review process is due to start in earnest in the months ahead but that is where I think the Deputy Prime Minister, with his particular concern to ensure that we have more joined-up government through the Cabinet Committee, will be in a very special position to help.
  (Mr Prescott) I do not know any more than what Gus Macdonald has said. I would be happy to look at it and write back to the Committee to see if I can give you more information. If there are further questions you would like to put to me either now or later I will certainly meet with you and discuss how we have to develop it?

49. Can I suggest that one of the areas that you need to look at is the whole question of Treasury rules and the way that the public sector is divided?

  (Mr Prescott) I hate Treasury rules.

50. The government, quite rightly, moved to resource accounting, and that was a major step forward, is that the end of the process or do you see further changes in the way public sector money is defined, what money is defined as private sector, what is public and what is a mixture?

  (Mr Prescott) That is a very important step forward and there is a lot of work to be done on it. Treasury rules, which are largely to do with financing, I always have had my arguments with from time to time. I think they are changing, there has probably been more changes and less Treasury rules than we have seen before, particularly in the transport, environment and local authority lots of changes would be made. Of course the whole business of public/private partnership, which the Committee is going to be looking at as well, is a matter of further examination and will require resource allocation considered in a different way. It is certainly a major part of the finer changes in Treasury rules at present.

Mr Wright

51. Can I change tack a bit to go on to the regional government. Quite rightly, Mr Prescott, you mentioned the fact that so much time is required of the Prime Minister and all of the responsibilities that come down to you ultimately, Climate Change, Cabinet Office, social exclusion as well, what concerns me is the split between the government agencies of the regions, where you are ultimately responsible for the government offices and not the regions and the DTI is responsible for the RDAs. Who is ultimately responsible at the end of the day for developing the policies for the regions in that scenario?

  (Mr Prescott) It is a very good question because while I was the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions I was responsible for bringing in the Regional Development Agencies. Of course it did mean that the DTI dealing with Europe had to deal with the grants and so, to a certain extent, there was a certain amount of cross-cutting involved and the regional government offices were really trying to deal with that. I think as your report pointed out again they were not working very effectively. We had a separate report[6] which was commissioned by ourselves and they were not working as efficiently and effectively as they could. One of the changes we have made is to get all departments involved, not all departments were involved, that is a major part, and the direct responsibility is to the Cabinet Office. It is true that the RDAs have been passed over to the Department of Trade and Industry at the present time, which has been connected with grants. This is always one of the problems, you can put two or three of them together or you can put them all into one. Frankly if we move towards a regional government structure I do believe those RDAs should be accountable to the regions. These discussions have yet to go to the government in a White Paper presentation. Obviously there will have to be central government negotiating with Europe, and that presumably, will remain with the Department of Trade and Industry, and we will put together the regional government offices and the RDA and then the existing regional assemblies at the moment, to which we have to ask ourselves, what is the level of democratisation that is to apply within the regions. At the moment it is a little untidy but I think in the White Paper we will do something to tidy this up.

52. Will one of the issues within the White Paper address possible problems between government, the regions and the RDAs? I can think of an example, which I will not go into now, where there may well be different policies. Ultimately the decision was taken at a higher level and what policy would be adopted. What would happen in the future in terms of determining policy for the regions, would it be ultimately yourself?

  (Mr Prescott) Central government makes this decision or it will apply as a policy. For example, if you want to designate a certain area in an objective one or an objective two the government have to negotiate in Europe, there is clearly going to be a government role. Once you have decided the policy the regional Government Offices are there to make sure it is coordinated, all departments work to those objectives. Do remember the responsibility I would have on a White Paper is to recognise what we as a government promised, that is that we would have a regional government system and it would be based upon the unitary local government system and the people would make a decision as to whether they wanted it. It must raise the possibility that some areas might vote to have such a regional government and some may not. That is a commitment that we made that it would be the choice of the people for that and we would have to take that into account in our White Paper. The Regional Development Agencies have been successful. They do take into account the regional strategic planning that we asked them to do and I think they have shown a lot of coherence and agreement on the policies which ever region they are working in, although every region is different and the balances are bound to be different. As an agency working to government direction I think they work quite well. Under this Cabinet Office now we can be sure that the government's policy is clear enough and they implement it within the regions.


53. Even if we were not sure who Mr Delivery was there is no question you are Mr Regions now.

  (Mr Prescott) That is the very point. I will be responsible with the Secretary of State. My job is not to take over the Secretary of State's job and it is important that as somebody who has to work with Secretaries of State—we may have disagreements about certain policies—with my Cabinet Committee role I have to try and find an agreement. My job is not necessarily to run their role but in this case it has been decided that I will be responsible with Stephen Byers to prepare the White Paper. I will then present it to Parliament and he then has the responsibility, once the policy is decided, to implement it and legislate for it.

Annette Brooke

54. I do apologise, I am having huge problems with the whole concept of the centre.

  (Mr Prescott) Join the club.

55. I have decided I need a picture to help me. Somebody tried to find one for me on the web but it is all out of date, it was a Cabinet Office organisation chart. Before I started this I was wondering if we could have the picture in due course and a line coming out of it, but then I think I might get a better understanding. I do think that is really important for the future.

  (Mr Prescott) Can I say to you that we will arrange for that to be done. There is one being prepared and I know that the Committee received a previous diagram. We will do our best to provide you with it.[7]

56. That would be helpful. I have a number of questions, I will just ask one little section at the moment, that is really pulling out your function and responsibility. Again, that is why we need the chart since this is all about responsibility and accountability at the end of the day.

  (Mr Prescott) People who work with me understand it pretty well.

57. One of my colleagues recently submitted a question for you to answer, the question is not important—

  (Mr Prescott) Was that Mr Oaten?

58. Yes. The question itself is not important.

  (Mr Prescott) That was me!

59. Not in this context. "What role was played by the new Cabinet Office Delivery Unit in place of the Railtrack administration?" I thought that would have been a question you would have answered but in fact the reply, Mr Prescott, was . . .

  (Mr Prescott) That is not our responsibility.

3   Note by witness: The e-Envoy reports to the Prime Minister and works with Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Back

4   Note by witness: Please refer to subsequent letter to the Committee (NC 1A) p. 24. Back

5   Witness correction: 1,900. Back

6   Note by witness: The PIU report "Reaching Out". Back

7   Note by witness: Please refer to subsequent letter to the Committee (NC 1A) p. 24. Back

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