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Cost-shunting, over-promise and under-delivering, waste, lack of skills, focus on process not outcomes: Government needs to “get efficiency done”

3 December 2021

After a year of unprecedented public spending, including a series of high profile and incredibly costly policy and procurement failures, PAC reports today that across Whitehall there needs to be a new focus on efficiency – but that will be an uphill struggle while the problems in planning and resilience, exposed across Government in the pandemic, persist.

Departments need “robust plans for realising the efficiencies identified during the Spending Review”, including careful planning of the skills and capabilities required – the PAC recently reported on the abject failure of the Green Homes scheme, where there were simply not the trained professionals to implement the scheme, no matter how much was spent on it - and ensuring sufficient capacity is in place to respond to unexpected situations. For years the PAC has reported on Ministry of Defence’s habitual problem of “over-promise, under-deliver”, and of not pulling the plug on schemes that underperform but instead sink more and more taxpayer funds into them.

The PAC has repeatedly called for results and outcome-focussed tracking of programmes as they are rolled out, with interventions planned and implemented if things are going off track. The Cabinet Office is now implementing a new ‘Outcome Delivery Plans’ framework, for departments to match resources to publicly defined outcomes. This could help identify where capacity is needed and allow more agile redeployment of resources across government: previous PAC reports such as that on the “eye-wateringly expensive” but failed Test & Trace system and on the school meals voucher scheme have shown that public policy expertise and effective delivery cannot always be bought in, even at extreme expense.

Chair's comments

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said:

“The lesson of the pandemic is that government cannot, and must not, rely on cutting capacity to or below the bare minimum necessary, as a proxy for ‘efficiency’. That is not efficiency, it’s just under-resourcing, often with costs not actually “saved” at all but shunted onto other parts of government or society.

Too often the PAC has seen efficiency figures which are either pie in the sky or a crude way of balancing the books but not about more effective ways of spending taxpayers’ money to secure better outcomes for service users. This may sound like dry accounting but every pound spent more efficiently means a better deal for taxpayers.

Make a plan, set outcome targets, measure delivery against them, use planned interventions when you miss them. This is not rocket science, this is management 101: we on PAC have been saying it for years and we’ll keep saying it until the government ‘gets efficiency done’.”

Further information

Image: PA