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Civil servants ‘under pressure to agree with ministerial spending’

By DPF Admin23rd February 2016August 6th, 2019Area Updates, Latest News, Northern Updates, Southern Updates

Senior civil servants are unwilling to challenge ministers over excessive spending because it might damage their career prospects, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has said.

A report by the National Audit Office found that recent changes to civil service recruitment mean that mandarins are under increasing pressure to avoid challenges to ministerial plans.

Contributory factors to this trend have been David Cameron’s ability to appoint departmental permanent secretaries and increased powers given to special advisers, the report said.

The report released on Tuesday by independent auditors appears to reinforce claims by civil service unions that the government has politicised Whitehall’s most senior roles.

Senior officials in departments can signal their concerns about a policy by asking for a formal “ministerial direction” to press ahead. But the watchdog found the mechanism was “not being used effectively as an accountability control to safeguard value for money”. There have been a number of occasions when civil servants failed to call for “ministerial direction”, the report said.

“Many major projects where there were clear value for money concerns, such as implementation of the Single Payment Scheme for farmers (2005-2014) or the National Programme for IT in the NHS (2002-2011), have not been the subject of directions,” it said.

Mandarins also failed to challenge millions of pounds paid by government departments to the collapsed charity Kids Company until June 2015 despite obvious concerns, the report said.

The auditors said it was possible the threat of requesting a direction was being used “invisibly” by officials, but there was no evidence of how widely that was happening.

“Accounting officers appear to lack confidence to challenge ministers where they have concerns about the feasibility or value for money of new policies or decisions, not least because standing up to ministers is seen as damaging to a civil servant’s career prospects,” the report said.

“Ministers have also sought greater influence over appointments to permanent secretary posts, as proposed in the civil service reform plan, despite concerns about safeguarding the independence and political neutrality of civil service appointments.

“Since October 2014, the prime minister has been able to choose whom to appoint to a permanent secretary job, from a list of appointable candidates,” the report said.

Powers given to special advisers in 2013 to create extended ministerial offices have also added to the pressures upon senior ciivl servants, the report said.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, the union for senior civil servants, welcomed the report but said it could have gone further by proposing curbs in the powers of ministers and special advisers.

“As the report highlights, ministers and their special advisers’ increasing influence over the implementation of policy is judged to be one of the major factors that needs to be addressed.

“The report calls for specific measures to change incentives for permanent secretaries to be put in place, yet no similar approach has been suggested for ministers or their special advisers,” he said.

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