National Audit Office Chairman Lord Michael Bichard contributed to the House of Lords Queen’s Speech debate on the NHS on 9 January 2020.
In his speech he extensively referenced the work of the National Audit Office and spoke of the need to address civil service capability in order to restore trust in the delivery of public services.
It’s a New year with a new government; there’s new energy, new ideas and new policies – even new money we are led to believe. There’s a sense of anticipation, and in the words of the prime minister the dawning of a new golden age. What could possibly go wrong?
Well on past evidence, quite a lot. Because on past evidence Governments in this country have found it very difficult to deliver – to deliver projects, services, policies or promises. We have become a nation which is good on ideas, ambitions and aspirations but weak on achievement, and as chair of the NAO I see countless examples of that week by week. Take a look at some of our recent reports. Take a look at Crossrail…over budget and still not completed: take a look at the starter homes target of 200,000 houses which delivered … well none at all actually: take a look at the Great Western Rail modernisation or perhaps the decommissioning of our nuclear submarines, a policy commitment from 1990 which has led to…no vessels at all being decommissioned and untold riches being spent on stockpiling disused submarines. We now have more submarines in storage than operational. And you can add to these recent failures Universal Credit and countless failed IT projects and social care. We are wasting billions of pounds when resources are tight and at the same time failing to deliver policies, many of which could help some of the most disadvantaged people in our society.
So, I often ask myself why does this happen? And what could we do to change it? Well let me offer a few thoughts for a new Government hopefully in listening mode.
For a start, we could make clear that delivering outcomes successfully matters just as much as endless over ambitious policy commitments. We could be careful to ensure that policies and targets were stretching but achievable rather than designed primarily to grab the headlines and capture short term political advantage.
We could limit legislation so that the programme for a session of Parliament was realistic and manageable.
We could do more to ensure that civil servants were equipped with the skills to deliver services and projects effectively. We could, for example, insist on officials being required to spend a reasonable amount of time in operational or project management posts before entering the senior civil service because it was always clear to me when I was a civil servant all those years ago that policy development mattered more than delivery and I fear that is still the case.
We could hold people …civil servants but also ministers…more accountable for failures and stop the recycling of incompetence. We could ensure that competent ministers stayed in post longer than the current 18 months and that civil servants were not constantly churned to benefit their careers at the expense of results.
We could devolve more power closer to communities, because large centralised bureaucracies rarely deliver successfully, and frankly local government and the voluntary sector have shown themselves more competent in recent times than central government departments and agencies.
We could do much more to learn from our mistakes rather than seek to explain away the inexplicable or defend the indefensible.
We could better understand and exploit the potential of digital technology to transform health, social care and many other essential services.
There are many reasons why the reputations of Westminster and Whitehall are at such a low ebb but in part it is because people have lost trust in their ability to deliver improvements not least in public services. Addressing that has to be a priority for this new Government and success will not be achieved by yet more promises to do better and try harder. That’s why I, for one, have welcomed the signals from No 10 that the Prime Minister is supporting radical changes to the way we govern…even if I might not have used the same words. But that support and interest need to be sustained in the face of so many other pressures if people are to believe things WILL change after so many false starts. And it needs to be visibly shared by the most senior officials.
But all revolutions have to start somewhere and maybe for this Government the starting point should be a clear statement that ‘we will only promise what we can deliver…. but we WILL deliver what we promise’. Or to put it another way, ‘promise a little less and deliver a lot more!’.
For more information and a transcript of the whole debate, visit the Parliament website.