Meg Hillier © Press Association Images
Meg Hillier © Press Association Images

Commercial expertise ‘undervalued’ in civil service

The UK government needs a more commercially-oriented civil service that can hold poorly performing contractors to account, rather than relying on whistleblowers and journalists to bring problems to light, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The report, Transforming contract management: progress review, criticised a civil service culture that does not place “enough value on commercial expertise”.

It said the Cabinet Office needed to “raise its game” and challenge government departments to better manage contractors.

The report also criticised central government for slow progress in bringing about a more commercially capable civil service. The Cabinet Office must improve the status of commercial roles as these “are not attractive enough to potential candidates”, it found.

The report found key senior-level contract management posts were going unfilled and that retaining staff was a problem. It advised that as pay was unlikely to be able to rival that of the private sector, the government should make sure job satisfaction in these roles was high.

Commercial competence should also become a more important factor in deciding which senior civil servants should be promoted.

Measures proposed by the committee to improve contractor accountability included government departments making contracts that improved accountability and recruiting more commercial staff.

All government departments were urged to create greater transparency and more effective use of audits to ensure contractors deliver.

Recent examples of badly managed contracts in the report included military flying training, health and disability assessments, and the GP extraction service.

Government departments should ensure service users “are clear on what they can expect from contractors”, said the report. There should also be clear and direct means for vulnerable groups and other users of services to complain.

The committee said the Cabinet Office should report by end 2016 with an overview of progress made by each department in improving contract management. Departments that fail to produce credible plans should be singled out, it said. The department also needed to explain how it would deal with poor performers.

Meg Hillier, Labour MP and chair of the PAC (pictured), said poor contract management was hitting taxpayers in the pocket.

“Change isn’t happening consistently or quickly enough. Time and significant sums of money have been wasted,” she said. “Government has a responsibility to ensure taxpayers’ money is well spent and that prompt action is taken when contractors fall short.

“We are particularly concerned that in cases where service users are being failed they have an effective means of raising the alarm.”

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