Politics: Inquiry plan for civil servants

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT should approve plans for top civil servants to be questioned on the performance of their departments by an independent body, MPs urged yesterday.

David Davis, the chairman of the influential Public Accounts Committee, backed calls to improve access to information by allowing the National Audit Office (NAO) to challenge permanent secretaries on targets. He likened the failure to have independent watchdogs such as the NAO or the Office for National Statistics to measure department's performance to "looking at a school report in the handwriting of the child who brings it home".

The proposals were set out by Michael Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister, in an open letter to the committee. Mr Heseltine complained about top civil servants gravitating to areas "where political controversy is fiercest and the pressure most intense".

"This cannot be right. It permits opportunities to slip by and cosy backwaters to drift, and the people in charge and their responsibilities unquestioned," he wrote in the letter published in Management Today.

However, if permanent secretaries had to give detailed answers setting out their objectives in specific and costed detail, the country would perform more effectively, said Mr Heseltine. "The Treasury, oddly enough, will probably be opposed because you might find things are not being well enough done and thus create demands for more expenditure," he said.

Mr Davis said he had experienced himself the "shocking absence" of management information when he was a minister in the Cabinet Office.

"We are now able to close the loop between policy formulation and assessment of outcome. But there are two essential ingredients: performance measures must measure the things that matter and they must be independently validated.

"The best equipped organisation to do this, and the only one that is truly independent of ministerial temptations to bend the date, is the National Audit Office."