Background to the report

Government bodies must exercise effective management over their use of public money. Accounting Officers, normally the Permanent Secretaries as the most senior civil servants, are personally responsible and accountable to Parliament for the use of public money. In 2016, we reported on the challenges Accounting Officers face balancing these duties with duties to deliver ministers’ priorities. We concluded they needed to exercise their responsibility to Parliament more explicitly and transparently.

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HM Treasury sets out the duties of Accounting Officers and its expectations of them in its guidance Managing Public Money. This states that Accounting Officers should make sure bodies “operate effectively and to a high standard of probity.” Government has established controls and processes to support this duty. This includes allowing them to explain, through a ‘ministerial direction,’ when proposals set out by ministers may mean they cannot meet their Managing Public Money responsibilities. Accounting Officer assessments (AO assessments) comprise a critical part of HM Treasury’s controls and processes. They provide a framework for Accounting Officers to scrutinise spending decisions against the four standards of regularity, propriety, value for money, and feasibility set out in Managing Public Money. In 2016, HM Treasury reiterated the importance of AO assessments as a tool for supporting novel and contentious decisions and made them a requirement at certain points in major programmes. Also, following concerns over transparency from ourselves and the Committee of Public Accounts, HM Treasury introduced a requirement for AO assessment summaries relating to major programmes to be published unless there were overriding sensitivities.

Scope of the report

This report considers the extent to which AO assessments are supporting good decision-making in line with expected standards and providing transparency over significant spending decisions up to the end of 2021. We only consider assessments for projects included in Government’s Major Projects Portfolio. We do not comment on value for money of the programmes themselves but look at how AO assessments help drive value for money across major programmes.


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