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Cabinet Office losing grip on UK government departments – report

The centre cannot hold...

By Kat Hall, 3 May 2017

Despite attempts to force government departments in the UK to work together, the "age-old tension" between Whitehall and the Cabinet Office continues – and that's according to an annual report by Parliament's Public Accounts Committee.

In its bird's eye view of departmental working, the committee said it still sees issues where departments repeatedly don’t do what they have been told or asked to do by the centre.

The report cited the lack of buy-in by departments to shared service centres.

"In this case the Cabinet Office did not intervene in a timely and effective manner... in part because it had no clear mandate, for example, to instruct departments to keep to the migration timetable but, also, because it did not see this as its role."

It was also critical of the Cabinet Office for taking too long to consolidate and co-ordinate its alphabet soup of agencies that are involved in protecting Britain in cyberspace. "In this case we concluded processes for recording departmental personal data breaches are inconsistent and dysfunctional."

The National Audit Office recently slammed the government for its chaotic infosec practices, which have cost it £300m and resulted in 9,000 data breaches.

"The question of who has a grip of the whole system of Whitehall government has plagued successive governments," said the report.

An analysis by The Register revealed that government departments are winning significantly more exemptions to splash the cash on expensive IT projects since the departure of former Cabinet Office minister Francis "Mad Frankie" Maude last year.

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier said: “After my second year as Chair I am increasingly concerned about the long-term accountability of senior civil servants.

“The game of musical chairs starts as one Permanent Secretary moves on and they all change jobs in the system. And few are in post long enough to have a vested interest in the long-term aims of their department or a project. And there is the age-old tension between a department and central Whitehall through the Cabinet Office.”

Universal Credit and HMRC's plans to overhaul its Aspire IT contract - the biggest in Europe - were outlined as being two areas of concern. As was the Home Office's Emergency Services Network.

“The Home Office seemed to downplay the risks to the contract and its being caught unawares by the contractor does not reassure us that the Department is on top of the contract or this project. This could cost the taxpayer dear,” it said.

Not surprisingly, the report said Brexit will dominate the next Parliament and the capacity of the civil service to deliver these changes is a huge part of the challenge.

The Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has referred to the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU as “the biggest, most complex challenge facing the civil service in our peacetime history”. ®

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing