Auditor-General on Ministerial Services

December 14th, 2010 at 8:53 pm by David Farrar

The full report by the Auditor-General is a big read at 124 pages. Their summary says:

Overall, we have concluded that the current system for providing support to Ministers has flaws at each of the levels we examined. The system functions but, cumulatively, the problems are significant.

At an operational level, our testing of transactions did not show any pattern of major spending irregularities. We found only occasional examples of transactions that we considered were arguably or clearly outside the rules. We also concluded that the basic design of the financial management processes is sound, and the finance team within is regarded as responsive and helpful.

So what are the problems, if the process is okay and the transactions are basically okay?

The legal status and purpose of the rules (which are set out in a document that we refer to as the Executive Determination) are confused and create ambiguity. The rules have a number of technical deficiencies, and the rule on travel expenses is unworkable in practice.

Their most important recommendation is:

On occasion, Ministers have challenged the role of the Department’s officials and whether they should be questioning Ministerial spending. In my view, the responsibility of the Department for the proper administration of Vote Ministerial Services needs to be put beyond doubt. This is an important first step, if major improvements are to be achieved.

Given the political context of the Department’s work, this has the potential to be a fraught question. That is why I have taken the unusual step of making a recommendation directly to the responsible , in this case the responsible for Ministerial Services. I am recommending that the formally confirm to the Department and all Ministers that he expects the Department to play this role, and that Ministers should support the Department’s officials as they carry out their responsibilities. The end result should be a stronger system that better supports and protects Ministers, by enabling officials to catch and correct mistakes early and as a matter of routine.

I’ve worked both directly for Ministerial Services, and in a ministerial office. The problem highlgihted by the AG is that if a Minister and their SPS both insist something should be paid for, it is a brave official who queries it strongly. Ministerial Services is rated on how well it keeps Ministers happy, which can conflict with their role as rule keepers also.

What the AG is saying is that the PM has to give his political support to Ministerial Services, and back them to do their job, even if it means upsetting a Minister and/or staff.

The AG is pretty scathing (but in polite diplomatic ways) of the Ministerial Services handbook. She says it does not clearly set out what is a legal obligation, and what is just preferred practice etc. Also not enough practical advice and examples are given to senior private secretaries for running ministerial offices.

The AG also refers to the overlap between parliamentary and ministerial entitlements and spending. I have long advocated that some of the parliamentary agencies shoudl be merged together – the Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services at a minimum. Arguably the PCO, Office of the Clerk and DPMC could all also be included in a super-parliamentary agency.

I am sure there would be huge cost savings from merging Parl Serv and Min Servs together. But even more importantly there would be better decision making, more consistency, IT systems that don’t have to learn to work with each other etc etc.

3 Responses to “Auditor-General on Ministerial Services”

  1. AG (1,949 comments) says:

    “Arguably the PCO, Office of the Clerk and DPMC could all also be included in a super-parliamentary agency.”

    Seriously? The fact that the DPMC doesn’t actually deal with parliamentary matters doesn’t concern you just a bit?

    Actually, wouldn’t it be simpler just to merge Parliament and Cabinet? All this separation of powers nonsense is so inefficient …

    [DPF: First on the general, we do not have full separation of powers. The Cabinet is entirely made up of MPs – it is not seperate to the legislature, like in the US.

    To my specific points, I am more advocating that back-room functions such as admin, finance, HR and especially IT be placed within one super-parliamentary agency, and the heads of specialist divisions have operational independnece as to how they do their jobs.

    The model for this is in fact DPMC – the Cabinet Secretary and Office is part of DPMC and accountable to the CE of DPMC. However she has statutory independence in how she performs the tasks of Cabinet Secretary.

    I would agree that DPMC is the least best fit into a super-agency (not to say it can’t be looked at), but at a minimum Parl Serv and Min Serv should be arms of the same overall body – the AG report highlights very well the problems with the status quo]

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  2. bhudson (4,770 comments) says:


    The whole thing is a bit of a mess really – surely the only body with a genuine remit to question the spending of Members (including Cabinet Ministers) is the House? This pretend oversight nonsense is just that – the highest authority, outside of the Sovereign, is the House.

    Merge the admin functions and make sure they understand their true role in affairs – which is to administer, not to govern

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  3. tvb (5,518 comments) says:

    There should be a clear separation of parliamentary services and Ministerial. Not a merging. When a member becomes a Minister then all funding relevant to that MP gets transferred over to Ministerial services, and when they cease being a Minister the funding for the MP functions gets transferred back. So for Ministers there is one place that services their funding. It gets very murky for a Minister to be going to two places to sort out funding. And no doubt with blurry boundaries abuse can happen. For back office function there could be rationalisation, but I am unsure of computer services. I do not trust computer firewalls, and what if for instance the cabinet computer system was hacked by an opposition MP made easier by sharing the same system.

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