Public Accounts Committee, Cabinet Office, sacrificial CPOs and a very poor session

Last week the Public Accounts Committee considered the recent National Audit Office report on how Cabinet Office is contributing to the management of government's top suppliers. Or at least they were supposed to do that. This was the parallel document to the report looking at four major suppliers, which saw a PAC hearing the previous week, with senior execs from Capita, Atos, Serco and G4S.

This time, the witnesses were Bill Crothers and Stephen Kelly of Cabinet Office and three senior officials from departments - Les Mosco, the Commercial Director in DE&S (MOD), Vincent Godfrey, Commercial Director at Ministry of Justice and Richard Douglas, CFO at the Department of health.

This was an unsatisfactory session to say the least, with too wide a span of questions again, and at times the behaviour of the Committee verged on the disgraceful.  Whilst the CEOs in the previous sessions got off pretty lightly, given that two of the firms are accused of criminal behaviour in terms of ripping off the public purse, this time, senior civil servants (who earn 10% at best of those CEOs), were treated with rudeness, hostility and got abused for failures that certainly were nothing to do with them as individuals.

There was also far too long spent on the complaints of one small firm, who appear to be well-connected, and ironically did seem to have won a pretty big contract, but were miffed they hadn't won more!

What was most odd though was the almost total disregard paid to the actual NAO report. That focused on the performance of the Cabinet Office (CO) in managing the top suppliers. It was a very balanced report, as we commented here, and praised CO for some good work whilst highlighting some issues that need addressing. But those issues – such as the lack of consistency in the approach of the Crown Commercial Representatives, poor or non-existent management information, and an overly short-term focus, were barely mentioned by PAC.

Instead, they laid into Mosco and Godfrey in particular. Godfrey was hammered far harder than the Serco or G4S CEOs had been for the alleged mis-reporting of contract management information. When he explained, rightly, that some points were subject to criminal investigation, so he had to be careful what he said, Margaret Hodge was condescending and rude. He was not responsible for the contract management work whilst these problems occurred, yet was treated by Hodge like a schoolboy caught smoking beyond the bikesheds whilst snogging the Headmistresses daughter!

Mosco got questioned on the new recruitment contract with Capita. He tried to explain that the problems probably weren’t Capita's fault, but an internal IT issue in MOD. But the Committee weren’t interested in listening. And Mosco is not the IT Director - I do not see that it was appropriate to take him to task for something that lies totally outside his remit.

Then Hodge questioned him on how much the 800 soldiers who have had to move back onto recruitment duties "cost" - which was ridiculous and seemed to be purely about Hodge scoring points and showing how tough she is. When Mosco said he would have to get that data for her later, she got very nasty.

I’ve always rated her, but this performance was inappropriate and I hope if she watched it back later, she might feel a little ashamed of herself, particularly given the easy ride that both the large suppliers and the Cabinet Office staff seemed to have been given by her Committee.

Indeed, I think we might ask – is PAC now part of the problem rather than the solution? NAO generally produce good reports, then PAC turn them into a bear-baiting session, with no real analysis or genuine discussion.

And frankly, any senior procurement person in the private sector who watched this (you can see it here or read the transcript which is quicker) would run a mile from any public sector job. So much for encouraging good people into central government  procurement.

All in all, watching it was one of the more depressing afternoons of my life.

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Voices (2)

  1. Effwhitt:

    Peter, Dan

    Very well summarised. As you said previously, makes you thankful you got out when you did!

  2. Dan:

    Kangaroo Court. MPs wanting to prove that they were being tough on the issues by going after the easy targets, not the ones with deep pockets and the possibility of a non-exec directorship.

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