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Government must take action when contractors fall short, say MPs

The Cabinet Office has been told by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to raise its game when it comes to managing contracts, and make sure that prompt action is taken when contractors fall short.

Back in 2014, the previous committee concluded that the government would not achieve value for money from its contracts unless it improved its contract management.

In a new report, the PAC says that while the government has made encouraging progress in some areas, the pace of change had been “disappointing”.

“We expect the Cabinet Office to raise its game, be more assertive and challenge those departments that are lagging behind as well as supporting them where necessary,” it said.

The new report was informed by evidence heard last month from the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Ministry of Justice.

The PAC concludes that there is more to do in changing the culture around contract management in the civil service. It called on the government to “tackle the long standing problem of a civil service culture that does not place enough value on commercial expertise… so that we see a civil service which is first rate at managing commercial contracts”.

It also urges the Cabinet Office to improve the status of commercial roles, which it says are not attractive enough to potential candidates. It suggests that more importance must be placed on commercial competence when It came to considering civil service promotions.

The PAC has recommended a series of new measures to improve contractor accountability, such as government departments codifying accountability arrangements in contracts. It suggests that by the end of 2016, all departments should also introduce a rolling programme of assurance including greater transparency and effective use of open book and internal audit to ensure contractors deliver what they are supposed to. 

Departments should ensure service users “are clear on what they can expect from contractors and should publicise a direct route through which users, especially vulnerable groups, can escalate issues,” it says.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said the committee was particularly concerned that where service users are being failed, they have an effective means of raising the alarm and could have the confidence that remedial action would follow.

“Government must step up its commitment to holding to account all contractors who receive public funds,” she said.

“Contracting out a service does not mean government can dodge responsibility for poor service delivery. We urge it to respond swiftly and positively to the recommendations set out in this report,” she added.

Earlier this year, the National Audit Office found that government consultancy spend was increasing once again. Computing looked at what it meant for the public sector and what could be done to stop it from spiralling out of control.

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