Will this be yet another White Paper for the out-tray?

Kenneth Clarke aims to bring the Whitehall mandarins' accounts in line with the commercial world. Roger Trapp reports

Given the steady encroachment of private-sector values on the public sector over recent years, it might come as a surprise to the general public to learn that the Government's accounting system is somewhat at odds with that found in commerce.

Then again, it might not. After all, in spite of the work done since the start of the Thatcher revolution by countless numbers of management accountants, government finance is still to a large extent a law unto itself.

Plenty of companies have found themselves in situations where the costs and the time required for completion have been underestimated. But these are nothing when compared with the regular diet of cost over-runs and delays that the public has grown used to over the years. When, for example, was the last time a new rail line came in on time? How long did that bypass around your village take to build?

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, appeared to sympathise with such attitudes at last week's launch of proposals for "a major reform" of the public expenditure system. They could change the culture of Whitehall and eradicate the idea that "simply by burning pounds 10 notes you are going forward", he said.

He hopes the system outlined in the White Paper Better Accounting for the Taxpayer's Money will switch attention from departments' spending to the service they offer and their efficiency in managing resources.

If he can genuinely do this, Mr Clarke might have good cause to claim that in abandoning the cash-based accounting methods introduced by William Gladstone, he is establishing "a milestone in modernising the state". But early comment from interested professional bodies suggests that there is less attention on management than on accounting.

They broadly welcome the attempt to introduce "resource" or "accrual" accounting so that government departments - like industrial companies - will have to account for and manage assets and liabilities. In fact, it is not just the commercial sector that it is coming into line with. Much of the public sector is already committed to going down this road. As Martin Evans, technical director at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, points out, "central government is catching up with the rest of the public sector".

But - as one might expect - none of the systems adopted is quite the same, with the result that there is "arguably a case for bringing them into line with one another", he adds.

This is of rather less concern, though, than whether the changes proposed in last week's White Paper will actually make government departments better run.

The Management Consultancies Association - many of whose members have been benefiting from the attempt to introduce more commercial attitudes to government - has "reservations about Whitehall's ability to implement these measures".

In a response issued immediately after the publication of the White Paper last Wednesday, it said it had warned both Mr Clarke and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine that the initiative could become an "expensive damp squib" and "missed opportunity" unless it was taken more seriously at senior levels within departments.

Feedback from members working in more than 20 central government departments and agencies suggested that the plan was seen as "primarily an accounting exercise".

Brian O'Rorke, executive director of the MCA, says: "This is an important initiative about management, but it is in danger of going off the rails because it is perceived in much of Whitehall as being more about accountancy and applicable to the finance officers rather than to permanent secretaries and their policy staffs. To this end, it is a pity the White Paper is titled resource accounting rather than resource management."

Not surprisingly, this is a view shared by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. It also supports the MCA's belief that training the mandarins in the new way of doing things is vital.

The White Paper proposes a training programme to help explain the concepts behind the move, but public affairs director Roger Gray questions how the Government will "cascade down" the new ideas.

"It is not just saying, this is how you do it. They need to encourage people to think through the financial implications of decisions," he says. It is also important to keep up the momentum, he adds.

What all this means is that each government department will have to start viewing itself as a separate company, with assets, liabilities and all the rest of it. Just as local authorities have had to start putting a value on council houses, parks and the like, so the Ministry of Defence, for instance, will have to put a current price on its tanks, warplanes, even its armed forces personnel in terms of the amount spent on recruiting and training them.

The current system - being based on cash - merely records when money is spent and on what, but does not trace what happens to it afterwards. The new approach is designed to focus more on resources consumed and to treat capital and current expenditure in "a way which better reflects their economic significance".

The White Paper is more radical than the Green Paper that preceded it, particularly in the way it views "departmental boundaries". These had previously been drawn in accordance with the responsibility of the departments' principal accounting officers. But consultation and further work convinced those responsible for the project that "it would be more meaningful to draw the boundary to reflect more closely the way in which different bodies are controlled". In other words, says Cipfa's Mr Evans, having a Department of Health boundary that excluded large parts of the National Health Service - ie. the health authorities, which purchase health care - would "not be very good".

From April 1998, all departments will also have to produce annual accounts compiled according to resource accounting methods, and these will include such details as the remuneration of key staff and information about tangible and intangible assets.

Much detail will have to be sorted out in the interim, but for all the moves towards commercialism, it appears some differences between the Government and the private sector will remain.

Liabilities, for instance, will be much easier to assess if departments are complying with general accounting principles. But there will not necessarily be the same requirement as in companies to make provisions. Government departments, points out Mr Evans, "can raise taxes, while companies do not have that option".

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