West Coast Mainline 2: Laidlaw confirms it’s serious
The cautious, and heavily caveated, interim report demolishes the â€˜rogue traderâ€™ view: that the flawed process was the result of mistakes by just a few civil servants. Rather, they â€˜appear to have been caused by factors including inadequate planning and preparation, a complex organisational structure and a weak governance and quality assurance frameworkâ€™.Â The questions raised tie in with those being addressed by the Institute for Government in its work on transforming Whitehall departments and on accountability.
Mr Laidlaw stresses the provisional nature of these findings, and that he has not yet seen all the documents requested by his team.Â He looks at what happened rather than why and what can be learned, which will be addressed in his final report due by the end of November. He will then â€˜explain what evidence I have seen as to the level within the DfT at which relevant actions or decisions were takenâ€™- even though â€˜issues of individual culpabilityâ€™ will not be addressed. Mr Laidlaw has shown robustness and independence so far, but the challenge for him now, as a member of the DfT board, is to examine the roles of ministers as well as civil servants: not just who knew what when but also who did not know, and should have.
The report raises a number of pertinent questions for Whitehall generally. First, how far did the sizeable cuts affecting the DfT, as well other departments contribute to the errors.Â Mr Laidlaw observes that â€˜the organisation has undergone a significant reduction in size accompanied by frequent changes of leadership at a time when the DfTâ€™s agenda has been expandingâ€™. There was a lack of continuity and clarity in senior leadership, with the senior responsible officer for the franchise programme changing three times during the course of the competition. â€˜In implementing substantial cost savings, the DfT had significantly reduced both its headcount and its use of external consultants and specifically financial advisers to support the refranchising programmeâ€™. These cutbacks were ordered by ministers and senior civil servants, not junior officials.
Second, the Laidlaw report highlights confusion in governance procedures over the franchise process. In short, there was ambiguity about the precise functions, authorities and inter-relationships of various committees and boards within the DfT, notably over the treatment of risk. These concerns echo those raised in earlier reports by the IfG on Whitehall and which are being examined in our current major study of accountabilityâ€”where one of the main questions is confusion over the balance between accountability and responsibility.
The Instituteâ€™s report on â€˜Transforming Whitehall: leading major change in Whitehall departmentsâ€™, by a team lead by James Page, will be published on November 7th and addresses exactly these questions of how departments operate in a period of continuing cutbacks.