A repeat of the West Coast Mainline debacle, which cost the taxpayer up to £45m, is ‘unavoidable’ unless civil service skills shortages are addressed, MPs have warned.
A new report from the Commons Public Administration Select Committee warned that an ‘honest appraisal of where weaknesses lie’ was needed right across Whitehall, using the West Coast Mainline procurement failures as a case study.
As a result of ‘significant technical flaws’ the competition to award the rail franchise was stopped by the transport secretary in October 2012. The Department for Transport (DfT) estimates that the cost of refunding the bidders was between £40 -£45m.
Virgin Trains was eventually awarded an extension to the franchise, for nearly three years to March 2017 with an option to extend operations to 2018.
Bernard Jenkin, chair of the committee said: ‘The very kinds of efficiencies and excellence that we are trying build into project and service delivery must exist within the civil service itself to realise these goals. Short-term presentational gains and savings are a false economy if key skills are not developed, or existing skills that were expensively acquired are lost.
‘Conventional business training cannot address the unique challenges faced in the public sector: the new Civil Service Leadership Academy needs to provide a unique focus on the key skills – and complementary and supportive skills across Whitehall – required by a modern civil service if it is to deliver its leaders’ vision.’
The 2012 Laidlaw report into the West Coast Mainline failures found that skills were central to the problem, with top civil servants not being replaced and junior officials taking up key posts in the procurement team despite being ‘less experienced than the bidding counterparties they were facing’.
However in May 2014, the DfT’s improvement plan conceded there was still an 'urgent need' to increase its commercial skills. DfT officials said in the wake of the West Coast Mainline debacle the department would be changing its employee contracts to support better commercial skills, particularly contract negotiations.
The document stated: ‘We will improve our commercial capability by delivering the Contract Management Excellence Programme, which will bring together contract management expertise from across the department to share best practice and develop a common approach, including developing capability by raising awareness, and providing training for project directors and those involved in commercial negotiations.’
At the time of writing Transport Network was awaiting a DfT response.