PLANS TO BE NICE to top Whitehall mandarins instead of subjecting them to a humiliating public mauling have been outlined by the first ever woman to chair the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
Former Labour Culture and Tourism Minister Margaret Hodge, who is also the first to be elected to the position by fellow MPs, outlined the revolutionary policy in a speech to the Institute for Government.
She said the committee had a reputation for being “something of a bear garden, with permanent secretaries dreading their appearances and expecting humiliating verbal maulings”, but remarked that although one top civil servant had admitted appearing before the PAC was very difficult “it seldom changes the price of fish”.
The aim is “to change the style of engagement so that we can strengthen the impact of our findings”, she said.
That would not mean being less tough or rigorous, or less incisive and hard hitting, but there would be more emphasis on learning and capacity improvement.
She added: “We want the hearings to be constructive exchanges, not defensive appearances because in that atmosphere we are more likely to identify what’s really going wrong and we’re more likely to be able to articulate good and practical recommendations for change.”
There would even be praise for good practice obtaining value for money and MPs would widen the scope of those called to give evidence.
She added: “If we are to be effective, civil servants and ministers must not just pay lip service to our recommendations, they must consider them properly, implement those with which they agree and give us a coherent and convincing argument where they disagree.”
She said the committee would even consider issuing reports in advance of spending by departments and take a more rigorous approach to monitoring the implementation of recommendations.
Ms Hodge also signaled a breach in the tradition that the PAC relies on the National Audit Office, by appointing its own advisers and seeking advice from independent sources, stressing this “in no way reflects on the quality of the NAO work”.
She said the committee was dealing with the first peacetime coalition since the 1930s embarking on the deepest cuts for decades, making the realisation of best value more important to minimise the impact of spending reductions on the public.
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