July 27, 2012

So there’s this thing called a “capability review”.  You get someone external, neutral and dispassionate to review a government department – and, in particular, its management – and assess its capability.  Could it cope with a crisis?  Could it react appropriately to change?  Does it have the confidence of its staff?  Does it have the confidence of its Ministers and of the general public who pay its wages?

It happened three times.  Once in 2006-7, once again in 2008-9… and now the third and final round, covering 2011-12.  (No, I don’t know what happened to 2010 either.) But the Institute for Government have crunched the numbers and raised some interesting questions about the answers.

Because, oh look, this is going to be the last time we do capability reviews (because Gus O’Donnell, who invented them, has retired now?)   And, oh look again, we had someone external doing the first two but the last one was based wholly on self-assessment.  And, knock me down with a feather, it turns out that not one department awards itself a “red” rating on the red/amber/green “RAG” rating system – where green is “strong”, amber is either “well placed” (amber/green), “development” needed (plain amber) or “urgent development” needed (amber/red), and red is “serious concerns”.

Yes, not one department has serious concerns about its own capability. Excellent news?  Or more a case of, altogether now, “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”  (Note in passing the first comment on this report of the results, suggesting that DECC’s apparently poor performance might correlate to their being the only department to use an external assessor this time around)

So what of HMRC?

After the MoJ they showed the most improved score in the third round.  They reported a clear green for “build capacity/develop people” and “collaborate and build common purpose” while achieving the lowest score across Whitehall in the separate staff survey.  In other words… the senior management thinks it’s doing marvellously, and its staff and customers beg to differ.  Its action plan, though, tells us that the external assurance was provided by the non-execs on the Board:

The Board has been very involved in this Capability Review, with all non-executive directors playing an assurance role throughout the process. We provided challenge during the review and support the final report and scores.

Oh, these guys??? Well that’s all right then! {sarcasm mode off}

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