Most government projects not properly evaluated – NAO

Government “cannot have confidence” billions of pounds of spending “is making a difference”

By Tevye Markson

02 Dec 2021

A tiny proportion of the government’s major projects are properly evaluated, a National Audit Office report released today found, while most are not evaluated at all.

The report reveals that just 8% of spending on major government’s projects is evaluated robustly, while 64% is not evaluated, despite the government’s commitment to evidence-based decision making.

The NAO said this means the government “cannot have confidence” that billions of pounds of spending in various policy areas “is making a difference”.

Responding to the report, Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “It’s alarming that the government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds on interventions which it can’t tell are actually making a difference.

“Today’s report shows that only a tiny fraction of major projects are properly evaluated to see whether they delivered on expectations.

“Without proper evaluation it’s impossible for government to know what works and what doesn’t, which puts value for money at risk.”

The NAO report found that, of the government’s 108 most complex and strategically significant projects, only nine are evaluated robustly, representing 8% of the total £432 billion in spending on these schemes. Most major projects (77 or 64% of spend) are not evaluated at all.

The report examines the government’s progress in improving its use of evaluations since 2013, when the NAO last published a review of this topic. 

Evaluation can help policy makers to decide whether initiatives should be continued, expanded, improved, targeted in different ways, or stopped altogether, the NAO said.

But the government’s use of evaluation “continues to be variable and inconsistent and the government has been slow to address known barriers to improvement,” according to the report.

Barriers to improvement include a lack of political interest, poor transparency in reporting results of evaluations and insufficient leadership.

In April 2021, the Cabinet Office and Treasury established a new Evaluation Task Force to “deliver a step-change in the scale, quality and impact of evaluation practice in government”.

The report welcomed government’s recent “renewed focus” on evaluation as a “step to using evidence better and improving value for money”. However, it said there should be more clarity on where responsibility lies for different parts of government’s evaluation system.

It called on the Evaluation Task Force to outline the role of different government bodies including itself, the Treasury, the analysis function and Cross Government Evaluation Group. The NAO also called for better oversight of each department’s evaluations.

Hillier said poor evaluation is a “long-standing issue” and it “remains to be seen whether the government’s latest focus on evaluation will lead to long-term improvements”.

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