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Tom Ferris is a Consultant Economist specialising in Better Regulation. He lectures on a number of PAI courses and contributes blogs regularly to PAI. He was formerly the Department of Transport’s Senior Economist.

Much has now been written about Brexit, but there have been few column inches about how well the UK administrative machine is coping with Brexit preparations. This gap has been filled recently with the publication of a report by the UK Public Accounts Committee, entitled Exiting the European Union[i].

The report concludes that UK Government departments have to face up to some hard choices as they handle Brexit. For some Departments it will mean stopping many existing projects to make room for essential Brexit work. Not so for the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) as Brexit is its sole function.

The following six conclusions emerge from the report of the Public Accounts Committee:

  1. DExEU has not been quick enough to move departments beyond planning for Brexit and on to getting things done;
  2. Departments have still not faced up to the need to re-prioritise existing activity to make space for Brexit;
  3. DExEU and the Cabinet Office do not have a credible plan in place to secure quickly the people and skills needed to support Brexit;
  4. Unclear accountabilities risk undermining the speedy decision-making, resolution of problems and swift progress required to support Brexit;
  5. The paucity of information in the public domain about what departments are doing to support Brexit is undermining scrutiny of progress; and
  6. Brexit is a huge challenge for the civil service, but is also a real opportunity to make long-term improvements.[ii]

The Committee did succeed in ascertaining the scale of the work that needs to be done, but very little on the costs of the work. Specifically, it noted that the DExEU,

“… has identified 313 areas, across all departments, where work needs to be done as a consequence of leaving the European Union (EU). Departments must plan for both a negotiated and a ‘no deal’ scenario, to be ready for when we formally leave the EU in March 2019”.

In addition, exiting the EU will require new policies to be developed to operate after Brexit; new primary and secondary legislation, and new processes and systems, including in some instances building new infrastructure and setting up new IT systems. It is quite clear that the scale of work is substantial and is required to be completed within a relatively short period of time.

Who oversees the work?

The Committee looked at the range of Brexit work, but in particular at the three Central Government Departments that oversee the work. They are:

  1. Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) was set up specifically to manage the process of Brexit from the centre of government and has responsibility for overall coordination and strategy;
  2. The Cabinet Office, and the functions that sit within it, have a key role in ensuring departments have the people and skills they need; and
  3. HM Treasury has overall responsibility for public spending, and for allocating additional funding for Brexit work as necessary.

What did officials say?

Officials from these three departments gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee last December. Quoting the principals of the three Departments gives a flavour of what is being done and the work that still needs to be done.

DExEU: Philip Rycroft (Permanent Secretary, DExEU) explained that his department’s role is not to deliver the projects; that is a departmental responsibility. He said that instead:

“Our job is to have the overview of the totality of the projects, to understand the relationship to the negotiating process, to manage those feedback loops and to understand the dependencies across that space, but it is for Departments to take forward the work to put those projects into place on the ground”.[iii]

The Cabinet Office: John Manzoni (Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary of The Cabinet Office) was asked whether the urgency of Brexit preparations was really appreciated in the Cabinet Office. He replied that,

“In many ways we might have been a little slower out of the traps than we would have wished, but that is about the numbers of implementation people and skills that we have at the start of this in the civil service. We had built some of those skills in, and I believe this will significantly ramp up. This is about building momentum. It will have to step change, and we are going to have to increase the pace, but I see that ball rolling and the question now is: how do we keep pushing that forward? Nothing is held up for money”.[iv]

HM Treasury: James Bowler (Director General for Public Spending, HM Treasury) outlined the controls that are being exercised in funding the different workstreams. He said that:

“…The 313 workstreams work through with Departments. That is stress- tested by the Treasury and the Cabinet Secretary in the stocktakes we are taking to work out the timing of the critical paths in those workstreams. Departments then bid into the Treasury for additional funding. The Chief Secretary leads a process in that…and allocates money accordingly, so she is fitting it to those critical paths that are linked to the workstreams. After allocation, there is a process of ensuring value for money, which is around business cases for the larger projects”.[v]

Recommendations

The Report has demonstrated that UK Departments still have a long way to go before finalising their plans and putting them into practice. It is taking the UK civil service time to get the right people, skills and resources to manage the process. With just over a year to go before Brexit, all Departments need to step up the pace of their Brexit work. In presenting its seven recommendations, the UK Public Accounts Committee displays certain impatience about the pace at which Brexit work is being delivered; see Box 1

Box 1: Recommendations of UK Public Accounts Committee for EU Government Departments

1.        Government should provide us with a formal update, no later than 1 June 2018, on progress made with implementation and with recruiting the necessary skills.

2.       By March 2018, departments should re-visit their existing commitments to test their realism against likely capacity and resources. Departments should demonstrate in their published Single Departmental Plans, no later than April 2018, how they have resourced the new priorities, including evidence of what has been de-prioritised as a result.

3.       The Cabinet Office, working with departments, needs to act urgently and put into practice credible plans to identify, recruit and get in place people with the skills needed, and in the numbers required, to enable progress of Brexit-related activities against critical milestones.

4.       Government should review, and streamline, the current complex structure of official-level committees to ensure decision-making can take place at the pace needed to support Brexit.  DExEU* and the Cabinet should report back on the results of this review by April 2018. This statement should also identify the individual responsible for making sure the overall arrangements for supporting the activity needed for Brexit operate quickly and effectively.

5.        DExEU* should publish by April 2018 details of the 300 plus workstreams to support Brexit, along with regular updated information on the delivery dates for new systems, system upgrades and new infrastructure.

6.       The Treasury should set out by April 2018 how it expects departments to report the costs of implementing Brexit.

7.        Government should demonstrate that it is actively learning from the experience of Brexit to build processes and ways of working which improve the skills and capability of the whole civil service. The Committee will in future hold DExEU* and the Cabinet Office to account, not only for their work to implement the UK’s Exit from the EU, but also for what they have done to actively use the experience of Brexit to embed long-term improvements in the way the civil service conducts its business.

* Note that DExEU is an abbreviation for Department for Exiting the European Union

Source: UK Public Accounts Committee, ‘Exiting the European Union’, 31 January 2018

Notes


[i] Exiting the European Union, available here.

[ii] UK Parliament Publication, available here.

[iii] Question 4, Page 23, available here.

[iv] Question 17, Page 28, available here.

[v] Question 52, Pages 39-40, available here.

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