“The relationship between ministers, accounting officers and civil servants is currently not working, the outgoing auditor general of UK’s spending watchdog has said in his last speech in the role.
Some ministers “see themselves more or less as chief executive officers but without the qualifications”, National Audit Office head Amyas Morse told an event on accountability at the Institute for Government think-tank’s offices this morning.
The comptroller said this meant ministers sometimes made decisions prioritising a project “close to their hearts” – when they should be held accountable but are not – which “has led to the abandonment of good practice”, he said.
The problem rests with the “interaction between ministers, accounting officers and civil servants,” Morse said. “That really needs to be addressed. I don’t think the relationship is where it ought to be at the moment.”
He said he did not see ministers having a say in the appointment of accounting officers as producing a “healthy result”.
Accounting officers can only ensure value for money for the public purse “if they are in a position where they are sufficiently influential to assert the importance of public value”, he added, suggesting they currently do not have this influence.
Morse said the civil service had become much more professional over the past few years, partly through initiatives like the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. The authority is a centre of expertise for delivering infrastructure and major projects.
But he added civil servants, who he noted often feel they need to defend ministerial decisions, required “greater clarity” on how they were was supposed to work alongside those decisions.
Morse talked of the importance of transparency in public life and the “outbreak of secrecy” in government over Brexit.
This secrecy had “slowed down the ability of the civil service to react and may have helped create an element of distrust more widely in parliament,” Morse said.
He suggested there was currently “inappropriate bravado when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money”. He highlighted Crossrail and the probation service’s contracting as examples of where government had recently overspent. “I didn’t have to go far into my in-tray to find those,” he said.
Morse will hand over the reins as auditor general and comptroller to CIPFA fellow Gareth Davies on 1 June.”