NAO: Accounting officers champion ministers’ interests over the public

DEPARTMENTAL ACCOUNTING OFFICERS face far greater incentives to satisfy ministers rather than ensure value for money for taxpayers, according to a report from the National Audit Office.

Accounting officers and permanent secretaries have to balance accountability to both taxpayers and ministers, but over time the NAO found the balance had shifted in favour of ministers.

Many accounting officers “appear to lack confidence to challenge ministers” where they harbour concerns over the feasibility or value for money of decisions because challenging ministers is seen as potentially damaging to careers, the report said.

Ministers specify the detail and timing of policy implementation, which then sees accounting officers “held responsible for implementation decisions not directly under their control”, the NAO found. Moreover, ministers have been seeking greater involvement in the selection of civil servants appointed to senior posts, while concerns were also voice over the influence of special advisers to ministers.

And while accounting officers have the power to flag concerns to parliament by formally and publicly requesting a direction to proceed from the minister, it is not being effectively used. The NAO pointed to the FiReControl Project which ran from 2004 until 2011, having cost £635m when it was cancelled, and the National Programme for IT in the NHS, costing £11.4bn between 2002 and 2011, as evidence for its ineffectiveness.

Head of the NAO sir Amyas Morse said: “Accounting officers are responsible for the delivery of value for money – the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public projects and programmes.

“Accounting officers have always had to balance this role against other duties to execute policy and support ministers. I think that these ministerial and policy goals have come to weigh more and more heavily.”

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