On Tuesday a man most people outside Whitehall have never heard of will enter the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Robert Devereux, the most senior civil servant in the Department of Work and Pensions, will face MPs on the Public Accounts Committee in a session which could spell the end of his career.
Mr Devereux stands accused of being responsible for the calamitous introduction of the Government’s Universal Credit programme which the National Audit Office concluded last week had been beset by “weak management and poor governance” that had wasted £34m of taxpayers’ money. He can expect a tough – and very public – grilling.
Now normally the minister – in this case Iain Duncan Smith – would be expected to carry the can for failures in such a high profile project, especially given he has been so personally associated with the policy.
But in a remarkable intervention the Work and Pensions Secretary has denied responsibility and effectively accused his Permanent Secretary of presiding over an incompetent department.
“When I arrived, I expected [to find] the professionalism to be able to do this properly,” he told MPs in the House of Commons.
Privately, Government sources go even further suggesting that Mr Duncan Smith was lied to by officials about the scheme’s progress and hint that Mr Devereux has little time left in his job.
Should Mr Devereux be forced to resign over Universal Credit it will be a watershed moment for the long-held convention of ministerial responsibility.
Fifty years ago it was assumed that ministers would carry the can for everything that happened in their department regardless of whether they knew about, or were responsible for, what had gone wrong.
The famous example is that of former Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington who took personal responsibility for the intelligence failures that led the British Government being taken by surprise when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 – despite having done nothing wrong himself.
But as the business of Government has become more complicated so the principle of absolute ministerial responsibility has become eroded. Some ministers have still been forced out for failings in their departments for which they were mainly blameless – but it is getting rarer.
The trouble is though that the loosening of ministerial accountability has not been really been accompanied by a commensurate rise in civil service accountability.
The West Coast Mainline rail franchising fiasco did not result in any minister or any official being stripped of their job – despite mistakes by the Department of Transport costing the taxpayer over £50m.
A report as long ago as 2009 found that the Ministry of Defence’s equipment programme was £35bn over budget, five years behind schedule, and could not be afforded in the long-term. But no one at Ministry of Defence has ever carried the can for it.
To be fair, the Coalition has made some steps to address this. Last year, for the first time, it published the objectives by which the performance of permanent secretaries would be judged.
But as the Institute for Government rightly points out many of the published objectives leave it unclear when, or on what measure, performance will be judged.
Ministers are also pushing to introduce fixed terms for departmental heads – but the danger with this is that ministers will decide to “hang on” until a permanent secretary’s time is up rather than risk open confrontation.
Last week, the Public Administration Select Committee called for a commission to be set up to re-assess the whole relationship between Ministers and the Civil Service to deal with this and other issues.
But this seems like a Yes Minister solution – which just pushes the problem into the long grass when there is a simple answer closer to hand.
Senior civil servants are already accountable to Parliament as “accounting officers” for their departments through the form of the Public Accounts Committee.
That body should be able to refer senior civil servants believed to have failed in their job to the non-executive directors on departmental boards – in a similar way to the private sector. They would have the power to take disciplinary action.
Such a solution would preserve civil service neutrality while providing an important check for when things go wrong.
In the case of Mr Devereux (and other highranking civil servants) it would also allow him a fair hearing – out of the limelight – while still holding him to account for what he did or didn’t do.