Watchdogs on the side of the angels

Janet Downs's picture
Two watchdogs which investigate whether the Government spends taxpayers’ money wisely, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the National Audit Office (NAO), appeared on BBC Radio 4’s File on Four four months after the NAO published its report describing the risks and opportunities of delivering public services through market mechanisms.

Margaret Hodge, PAC chair, told the BBC that “due diligence” was missing in the desire to push through outsourcing contracts quickly. Tim Banfield, NAO, said NAO auditors hadn’t seen sufficient evidence that savings could be made by outsourcing although it was still investigating. He added that it was too simplistic to argue that the public sector always gets it wrong while the private sector always gets it right.

File on Four’s investigation was first broadcast on 23 October, 2012. On the same day, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, attacked the NAO and PAC in a speech to the Politeia Think Tank. He accused the watchdogs of being “risk averse”, too “conservative” (small ‘c’), hampering innovation and holding up reforms.

Why should Gove attack these two influential and respected bodies? Could it be because they aren’t wholly embracing the delivery of public services, which include education, via market forces? Might it be because their measured comments based on investigation and analysis act as a warning against embarking on rushed initiatives?

Gove told his listeners that “we need to move further, faster, now.” This invokes the saying, “He who hesitates is lost.” But the comments by the NAO and PAC invoke Pope’s words: “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.”

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