Poor evaluation means government ‘not learning from failure’, NAO head warns

“Limited consequences” for failing to evaluate projects means too few public bodies are doing so, Gareth Davies says
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said evaluation and evidence-based decision making is now “more important than ever”

By Tevye Markson

10 Jan 2022

Government is “not learning from its successes or failures” because departments do not face serious consequences for failing to evaluate their own work, the head of the National Audit Office has warned.

The government must address the fact that public bodies are too often choosing not to evaluate their work because they face “limited consequences for doing so, Gareth Davies said.

"The incentives to evaluate and learn what works and why must be stronger than the instinct to avoid evaluating in case it uncovers bad results," he wrote in The Times.

The NAO’s recent report into government evaluation found that only 8% of major projects are robustly evaluated, while 64% are not evaluated at all.

“This means government is not learning from its successes or failures and has little information in most policy areas on what difference is made by the billions of pounds being spent,” Davies said.

“By getting better at sharing knowledge across Whitehall, government can ensure that valuable lessons do not go to waste and civil servants do not have to start from a blank sheet every time they devise a new policy.

Highlighting the government’s Kickstart scheme, launched in September 2020, as an example, he said the Department for Work and Pensions has limited assurance over the quality of the work placements created by the scheme or whether jobs created by employers would have existed anyway.

Kickstart provided funding to employers to create high-quality six-month work placements for people aged 16-24.

But a lack of monitoring of what kinds of jobs and training employers are providing means the department will find it difficult to deliver a robust estimate of the scheme’s long-term impact, Davies said.

The NAO chief also pointed to the government’s failure to act on some warnings before the pandemic that would have helped it prepare for Covid-19.

Central government guidance makes it clear that departments should evaluate projects comprehensively.

This not only helps government make informed decisions about whether to launch, continue, expand or stop a project but also allows the public to examine how effectively public money is spent, Davies said.

For departments and other public bodies to improve and achieve better outcomes, Davies said they need to be able to draw on robust evidence, both from within their department and more widely across government.

As the government works to recover from the pandemic, evaluation and evidence-based decision -making is “more important than ever”, Davies added.

A government spokesperson said: “Evaluating what we do to improve public services is a key part of our government reform programme. 

“We recently launched an evaluation task force, which is already improving government services. 

“The new £15 million evaluation accelerator fund is also promoting high quality evaluation, to make sure we are delivering better for citizens.”

The government has also launched a new Analysis Function Strategy and Delivery Division, which is working with departments to improve evaluation skills across government.

The NAO has welcomed these recent steps from the government to strengthen evaluation but Davies said it must do more to address barriers such as a poor understanding of the value of evaluation at senior levels.

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