Greater transparency needed in major government projects, NAO says
Some projects were not given intended outcomes by which to measure success, making it impossible to determine what they have achieved, the watchdog said
A project to expand telephone signal to rural areas was measured against revised objectives. Photo: PA
Poor records and reporting are making it difficult to keep track of whether major government projects are delivering on their objectives, the National Audit Office has said.
Between April 2011 and September 2017, 302 projects left the Government Major Projects Portfolio, a roster of the most complex and strategically significant projects across government overseen by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. However, the authority did not have complete information about what they had delivered and why they left, the NAO said in a report published today.
This incomplete data made it “difficult to determine whether projects left at the right time and for the right reasons”, and this lack of transparency “[increased] the risk and perception that projects are removed inappropriately”, the report said.
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Transparency has improved since a new process for deciding when projects should leave the GMPP was introduced in 2016, the report said, but added that “there is still a need for the authority to develop its oversight at exit and for departments to monitor and evaluate projects and their outcomes more consistently”.
The NAO inspected 48 projects for the report, and found it impossible to tell whether 22 of those had achieved their intended outcomes.
In some cases, this was because it was too early in the projects’ rollout to assess success. However, seven were found to have had no business plan with intended outcomes to measure against. “It is not possible, therefore, to say overall what these projects have achieved,” the report said.
One such project was the Household Energy Efficiency programme launched by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2014, the NAO said, as it had no measurable targets for key objectives such as energy saving. “This not only reduces transparency around benefits but is a missed opportunity to instil greater discipline to the management of government initiatives,” the report said.
Meanwhile, other projects that were judged successful were measured against different benchmarks to those they were initially set, the report found.
These included a £150m Mobile Infrastructure Project, set up in 2011, which aimed to build 575 telephone masts to expand coverage in rural areas. However, the target was revised down dramatically in 2015 to 40 masts when it became apparent that the initial goal was unachievable.
When the project left the major projects portfolio, having produced 75 masts, its performance was measured against the revised figure and the authority gave it a green rating, despite it having vastly undershot its initial target.
To improve transparency, the NAO said the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the Treasury should require all major projects to have a business case that is kept up to date as the project changes.
Departments should identify a small number of measures for each project against which they can measure progress, the report said, and publish a statement when a project is completed assessing the extent to which it has met its goals.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “The Infrastructure and Projects Authority is clearly contributing much-needed project management and evaluation techniques to the mammoth programme of major projects run by government.
"We believe it could drive greater improvement if it adopted a clearer method of measuring the benefits of these projects, and tougher discipline over the terms on which projects are included, or more to the point, excluded from its oversight."
Responding to the report, the Cabinet Office highlighted the government has successfully delivered 26 major projects, representing almost a fifth of its overall portfolio, this year. The schemes range from the Childhood Flu Immunisation programme, which is reducing the risk of flu in vaccinated children by 66%, to the Francis Crick Institute, the biggest biomedical research facility under one roof in Europe.
“Government is delivering an ambitious portfolio of major projects, which is realising our priorities and modernising public services," a spokesperson said.
“As the NAO recognises, we've made significant advances in capturing and measuring project benefits and are using this data to drive improved performance across government."
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