Senior civil servants ‘should get more training to analyse infrastructure plans’

Written by Richard Johnstone on 20 September 2017 in News

 IfG calls for expanded role for Major Project Leadership Academy, including “regular engagement” with ministers

Senior civil servants need to be given more training so they better understand how to appraise large infrastructure projects, a review has claimed.

A report by the Institute for Government today said that top civil servants and ministers needed to better understand the costs and benefits of infrastructure projects if they were to succeed

The think tank called on the Treasury to make its Green Book, which is the government guidance on appraising project or policy proposals, more user friendly in order to ensure it more consistently applied across Whitehall. This should include more case studies of previous projects as well as greater tips on how long appraisals should take to ensure they are thorough.


However, such a drive must be accompanied by an “extensive training programme” for senior civil servants and ministers to ensure that the guidance is understood by policymakers cross government.

Currently, detailed training on cost-benefit analysis is limited to analysts, and the IfG said senior civil servants and ministers – who are ultimately making decisions on projects – must be able to understand the sensitivity of estimates in project plans and have the confidence to challenge underpinning assumptions.

The review said that the establishment of the Major Projects Leadership Academy to train civil servants working on those top schemes was a positive step forward, and this should be expanded to ensure that previous members of the group can continue to share their knowledge. The report also called for the Academy to have “deeper and more regular engagement” with ministers.

Nick Davies, research manager at the Institute for Government and report author, said that – with a quarter of a trillion pounds worth of infrastructure investment expected over the next five years – the government can’t afford expensive mistakes in analysing the cost and benefits of projects.

However, he said, there have been some recent U-turns on big projects, such as elements of the government’s rail electrification programme for the Midland Main Line and Great Western Main Line.

“Picking the right infrastructure projects can help boost productivity and economic growth. Cost benefit analysis should be a crucial tool for ministers making these decisions but too often it is misused, inconsistently applied and poorly communicated,” he said.

“Government must get much better at learning from the successes and failures of previous projects. Equally, ministers should be far more honest with the public about the limits of modelling and the real reasons behind their decisions. Cost benefit analysis is a useful tool but it will only ever be as good as the people using it.”

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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