By Tony Collins
MP Richard Bacon, a long-standing member of the Public Accounts Committee, has asked the National Audit Office to find out how many major departments have more press officers than the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority has staff to manage billions of pounds worth of government projects.
Bacon’s question will be answered in a forthcoming report of the Public Accounts Committee.
He wants to compare the paucity of staff at the Major Projects Authority, which has the important job of overseeing high risk government projects, with the generous numbers of press officers who have the less important job of publicising the work of central departments.
Set up in 2010, the Major Projects Authority has only 38 full-time people whereas several central departments have more than that number in press officers.
Whereas the Government Communications Centre GCHQ has only three press officers, the Department of Health has many more than 38.
There are 205 projects in the Government Major Project Portfolio, with a combined whole-life cost of £376bn, and annual cost of £14.6 bn. Thirty nine of those projects had a delivery confidence rating of ‘red’ or ‘amber/red’, according to an NAO report “Assurance for major projects” in May 2012. The Major Projects Authority reports on 160 high risk projects.
The NAO says the Authority does not have sufficient resources to carry out its role in the central assurance system to best effect.
“The Authority is reporting on 160 more projects as part of the portfolio and carrying out more in-depth assurance work, but has 40 per cent less staff than the body it replaced.”
The NAO says limits on the number and skills of the staff available for project review teams has led to difficulties in the timely scheduling of reviews. And there is an overdependence on key individuals.
“There is a risk that if key staff departed, considerable skills and knowledge would be lost to the assurance system,” says the NAO.
Bacon told MPs at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee, “Having watched so many car crashes over so many years, I want this [Major Projects] Authority – I have been a huge fan of it ever since its inception – to be able to carry out its role to best effect… There are county councils with a bigger press office than Mr Pitchford’s team.” David Pitchford is Executive Director, Major Projects Authority.
Bacon asked Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, to find out which major departments of state have press offices with more than 38 people in them. Morse’s reply is likely to be in a table in the PAC’s forthcoming report on the assurance of high risk projects.
Bacon’s question had little to do with the work of government PR officers. He is making the point that government is right to have set up the Major Projects Authority but, by providing the money for only 38 people, it sends out the message that departmental press offices are more important than the independent oversight of 160 major high risk projects that have a whole-life cost of tens of billions of pounds.
Clearly the MPA needs more people. It needs to do continuous assurance on high risk projects, not just the occasional report; and it is a pity its reports are not published. The sad fact is that if it published them departments would not cooperate in the MPA’s reviews.
There is another, perhaps tangential point, raised by Bacon’s question: how important are departmental press officers?
This is probably a horrible generalisation but, with some notable exceptions (there are some excellent PR people on the informatics desk of the Department of Health and at the Cabinet Office) central government’s PR officers are useful to central departments for their ability to discourage the dissemination of bad news.
Some departments have non-PR staff who vet questions from journalists before they will allow a PR to answer. Do senior officials consider their press office to be more important than assurance on high risk projects and programmes?