UK gov needs better data skills to cut spending

MPs want to know who to blame if £81bn target isn't reached

The Cabinet Office's Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG), set up to lead efforts to cut government spending by £6bn in 2010-11, should set up management information systems to measure progress accurately and objectively, the public accounts committee has said.

The committee's report on the ERG's role in improving value for money in the public sector says that there is pressure from non-executive directors on the new departmental boards for standardised management of information to allow comparisons to be made between departments.

"The group has made a start by introducing a standardised quarterly data review," the report notes.

Giving evidence to the committee, the ERG provided information showing that its activities produced savings of £3.75bn across government in 2010-11, which included a breakdown of savings generated by each initiative.

Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee, welcomed the level of detail in the ERG's reported savings. "This degree of transparency is a big improvement on the very poor standard of reporting by departments," she said.

The committee acknowledged that an increase in the scale of the ERG's "efficiencies" would be difficult for the body to oversee, and that many of these would have to be achieved in areas where the ERG currently has limited influence, or by local bodies where it has none.

It called on the ERG to explain how it would ensure its approach could be replicated across the wider public sector.

The report said the group should develop and promote arrangements with the wider public sector to take up the best deals.

The ERG told the committee that it is seeking to ensure the civil service has the "right skills", project management in particular. The ERG also said it wants to ensure senior civil servants have "commercial skills" in addition to their traditional expertise in policy analysis and advice.

Savings so far have involved the group imposing new controls on departments, an approach which depends on the support of ministers and informal relationships with the Treasury. Sustained efficiency improvements will need a much deeper change to both the culture and institutional structure of government, says the document.

The challenge of "delivering efficiencies" is huge. Of the £81bn reduction in spending the government has planned over the next three years, it expects half to come from efficiencies – rather than cuts to services or delays to important projects.

The committee said that a clear plan must be set out by the ERG on what it intends to achieve and who is accountable for improving value for money.

"The group has a short-term focus on cutting government spending, but is less clear on what its aims are in the longer-term. The group needs to specify what constitutes success and how progress will be measured," said Hodge.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

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