NAO questions ‘need for speed’ in project delivery

Lessons-learned report highlights successes and failures from high-profile programmes rolled out at pace
National Audit Office NAO Credit: Matt Foster

By Jim Dunton

27 Sep 2021

Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office has created a guide for officials and ministers that draws lessons from both successful and failed projects delivered at speed.

It looks at a range of elements of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the civil service’s work to deliver Brexit, and high-profile flops such as the Ministry of Justice’s dumped Transforming Rehabilitation reforms and the scrapped Green Homes Grant.

With much of the coronavirus-related work, the NAO acknowledged a clear need to act quickly to protect life and shore up jobs and businesses. However it noted that there had still been a need for departments to monitor their emergency programmes and refine them when they were up and running. It cited a specific HM Revenue and Customs exercise to capture lessons learned from the coronavirus employment support schemes last year, which was used to inform the ongoing management of the schemes.

Other examples in Lessons Learned: Delivering programmes at speed include Transforming Rehabilitation and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Green Homes Grant. The NAO said those projects had fallen victim to the imposition of unworkable implementation timetables that hampered their chances of success.

In the case of Transforming Rehabilitation, which set out to introduce a payment-by-results model for some probation services, the report said the MoJ ministerial team set a timescale that prioritised delivery before the 2015 general election rather than the creation of a well-thought-out system.

“The Ministry of Justice did not adequately test how the transformed system might work before letting contracts; and did not have a good understanding of delivery models, working practices and governance,” the NAO said. “Its rushed implementation introduced significant risks with far-reaching consequences, including poor value for money for the taxpayer.”

Transforming Probation cost at least £467m more than anticipated and resulted in worse outcomes for offenders. Services have since been returned to public control.

Separately, BEIS’ Green Homes Grant was launched in August 2020 and offered government funding of up to £10,000 to cover the cost of energy-efficient home improvements. The scheme was closed to new applicants in March this year, 12 months earlier than planned. Business minister Lord Martin Callanan told MPs last week that only 80,000 of the scheme’s anticipated 600,000 grant vouchers were issued.

The NAO said deadlines imposed for the implementation of the grant had “constrained the time to consult with stakeholders, procure an administrator, and design and launch the scheme”, stopping it from achieving many of its desired outcomes.

“External assurance highlighted several risks of proceeding quickly, but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy accepted these risks,” it said.

“The fast pace constrained its procurement options, its engagement with the installer market and, alongside the short duration of the scheme, made it hard for energy efficiency installers to mobilise to meet demand.

“Despite the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s considerable efforts, the rushed delivery and implementation of the scheme has significantly reduced the benefits that might have been achieved, caused frustration for homeowners and installers, and had limited impact on job creation for the longer term.”

The NAO report said the organisation was aware of examples in which government had set out to deliver programmes at speed, accelerating its normal processes, and where it had done this well. But it said delivering programmes at speed created “new and heightened risks” for both the programme and the organisation delivering it.

“Given these risks, not all programmes can, or indeed should, be delivered at speed,” it said.

“We have identified insights to help decision-makers determine when or how a programme should be delivered at speed and then continually test whether they can successfully deliver the programme.

“Decision-makers need to be clear why speed is necessary before deciding if a programme should be delivered quickly.”

The NAO report also made reference to the much delayed trans-London Crossrail project, which despite the project’s often repeated “on time and on budget” mantra is currently running more than three years late and has so far exceeded its original £14.8bn budget by more than £4bn.

“On Crossrail, our May 2019 report found that the emphasis on progress reports presented to the board and sponsors was on what had been achieved, rather than on the level of risk to successful delivery that remained in the programme,” it said.

The NAO said decision makers responsible for programmes that were delivering at speed needed to be particularly careful to make sure that data and information related to shaping and adapting plans was up to date and focused on what needed to be delivered.

It said that pressures such as a focus on speed could create “defensiveness” about a particular programme or allow a “good news culture” to develop, which could undermine processes intended to transmit accurate information.

“This means that opportunities to identify and mitigate serious issues may be missed and instead emerge suddenly and unexpectedly,” the report said.

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