September 27, 2011 11:38 pm

Heroic timetables are far too taxing

The last Whitehall staff survey showed that morale at HMRC was lower than in any other department. Now questions are being raised about HMRC’s governance, writes Sue Cameron

Someone somewhere needs to get a grip on Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. One senior insider this week described the department as “rudderless”. Certainly it is beset by difficulties. Those in the know say HMRC’s 2013 timetable for introducing the new universal credit – a huge joint IT project with the Work and Pensions department – is “heroic” or, worse, “adventurous”. (Damning adjectives in the mouths of mandarins.) Meanwhile, the last Whitehall staff survey showed that morale at HMRC was lower than in any other department. Now questions are being raised about HMRC’s governance.

It’s not hard to see why. Mike Clasper, the non-executive chairman, works three days a week. Dame Lesley Strathie, the chief executive, is on long-term sick leave. Dave Hartnett, the permanent secretary, has been made acting chief executive. Stephen Banyard is the acting director-general in charge of HMRC’s Real Time Information project on which universal credit will be based. They are all good people, no doubt, but it does mean that those running the show comprise one part timer, one off sick and two temps. Oh dear.

What’s more they have been taking a hammering from MPs and they don’t always sing from the same hymn sheet. Dame Lesley told the Treasury select committee that the RTI project was “high cost and high risk”. When Mr Banyard was quizzed on this in May the exchanges went as follows: Chair: “Do you agree it is high cost?” Mr Banyard: “I don’t think it is high cost for what we are getting.” Chair: “So Dame Strathie was wrong?” Mr B: “No, she was not wrong.” Chair: “She said the opposite of what you have said.” Mr B: “It is a relative judgment, isn’t it?” Well up to a point Sir Humphrey.

Colleagues say that “no one is better qualified than Stephen Banyard to bring in RTI” and he told MPs that if the whole project went turtle up, he would carry the can. (Though at 63, he could honourably retire before that became necessary.)

No matter how competent officials are, one problem with big Whitehall projects is that often ministers want to hurry things up to suit a political timetable that is out of kilter with the realities of delivery on the ground. Yet as senior Whitehall figures will admit, it is also important to have stability on the government side with good governance at the top and project experts who can see things through. The man who presided over the merger of the old Inland Revenue and HM Customs was Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary. Perhaps he should cast an eye over
his creation.

Political defence

Banx cartoon

Professor Matthew Flinders of Sheffield university has been speaking out in defence of politicians in a three-part series on BBC Radio 4, which started this week. Defending politicians is not a fashionable line, yet it seems to have attracted the punters.

He wrote a piece explaining his views for the BBC website and he tells me that within half an hour it had a record-breaking 30,000 hits. He says the media are “almost toxic about politicians”.

Among the media luminaries he interviewed was Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and a media star. “His lop has appeared more often than any politician on Question Time,” says Prof Flinders. “I don’t think he liked being interviewed. I asked him if it wasn’t too easy for him to sit there making crass jokes about politicians and then getting a round of applause. Suddenly he turned from being his usual cuddly self into something much more frightening.”

Literary gem

The Complete Plain Words by the late Sir Ernest Gowers was written for the civil service and today senior officials are still urged to mind their language. Whitehall’s official guide to writing the minutes of meetings, including cabinet meetings, was made public for the first time this summer.

It includes the following warning: “In using clichés, which have become such common currency or so indispensable as virtually to have lost their metaphorical significance such as ceiling and target, take care not to juxtapose words which, by violating the dormant metaphor, awaken and draw attention to it: as in, there was no intention on the part of the Treasury of fixing an unrealistic ceiling which could not be held.”

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