Whitehall blasts new tests as 'simplistic'

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The Independent Online

Civil servants have hit out at "simplistic tick-boxing" exercises they have been forced to carry out in the wake of Sam Laidlaw's report into the West Coast Mainline fiasco.

The Independent understands that officials have complained to the Treasury that "quality assurance" tests give misleading results. What are known as "business critical models" that underpin how Government awards major contracts are being reviewed in every department through what are said to be sprawling spreadsheets.

These ask such questions as whether a contract award was assessed by an external auditor – argued to be one of the failings of the West Coast Mainline bidding process. That rail franchise award was scrapped at the cost of £40m to the taxpayer last year.

However, the spreadsheet often only allows for a "yes" or "no" answer, meaning that no context can be given for a decision which might appear not to have followed internal guidelines. There are fears that if the media get hold of the spreadsheets they could be misinterpreted, so that swathes of well-run contracts end up being questioned. A Whitehall source said: "The Treasury has received complaints as this is just ticking boxes and is simplistic."

Centrica chief executive Mr Laidlaw was asked to carry out a review of the failings of West Coast Mainline, which saw First Group named as preferred bidder to run the line after outbidding Virgin by £1bn. "Serious technical flaws" in the bidding process were cited as the reason to cancel the contract.

Mr Laidlaw said Department for Transport officials had failed to follow their own guidelines and said that there had been "weak quality assurance and insufficient governance oversight". As a result, the Treasury has since sought to ensure that quality assurance procedures have been followed by demanding that departments fill in the spreadsheets.