Leading article: Malfunctioning government

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The Independent Online

So depressingly accustomed have we become to counting money lost during the financial crisis in billions, even trillions of pounds, that the amounts revealed to have been squandered by the Government in recent days seem almost modest by comparison. Yet this is still money lost, a considerable amount of it – and it ultimately comes from the taxpayer.

At what might be called the micro end of the scale we have almost 100,000 retired public sector workers whose pensions were overpaid to the collective tune of £126m. The same day we learnt – thanks to the Commons Public Accounts Committee – that a government "efficiency drive" at the Department for Transport that was supposed to save £57m will actually end up costing £81m. Last, but by no means least, we have the school testing fiasco, a scandal spread over several months, which culminated in the publication of the official inquiry report yesterday.

While these three sprawling examples of mismanagement were quite separate and differ in many respects, they also had several features in common. They involved some form of ambitious IT project. The original purpose was to improve efficiency and save money. And in each case at least one private agency or consultancy was involved which was at one or more removes from government. If, or rather when, something goes wrong, accountability is blurred.

It is not as though we have not been here before. So familiar are these failings, from the project to computerise NHS records or the ill-fated Child Support Agency, to name but two, that they are almost like old friends.

It is surely time for someone to take a considered look at how government, the Civil Service, private agencies, quangos and the rest actually work together, with a focus on the Civil Service. It is not just that huge amounts of taxpayers' money have been wasted, it is that the blame regularly falls through the cracks.

There have been enormous changes over the past 30 years in what the Civil Service is expected to do, without – it appears – corresponding changes in training, structures or numbers. A top-level commission should be appointed with a brief to reinvent government for the 21st century.