NAO highlights continued turnover of major project leaders across government

National Audit Office raises concerns over the number of transformation projects government is undertaking, as report notes that over a third of major projects due to be delivered this Parliament may be unachievable

By Suzannah.Brecknell

06 Jan 2016

Accountability for government’s major projects is still being undermined by high turnover of senior leaders, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report published today.

The report assesses government’s progress in improving delivery of the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP) and raises a number of concerns including the volume of projects due to be delivered in the next five years and a continued lack of important delivery and commercial skills. 

The GMPP includes government's biggest and riskiest projects with a total value of £511bn, ranging from infrastructure projects such as Crossrail to ICT and service transformation programmes such as Universal Credit. 

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Despite attempts to clarify accountability for the delivery of major projects - for example by revising Cabinet Office guidance so that project leaders are now expected to appear before select committees – turnover among Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) remains high.

Just four of the 73 projects that have been in the GMPP since it was established have had one SRO during that time. One project – in the National Crime Agency – has had five SRO changes since September 2012. 

Nearly two thirds of projects on the GMPP – 64% – aim to transform or change the way public services are delivered. These transformation projects “can present the greatest risk of failure”, notes the report, and like infrastructure projects “the impact of change may be felt in other parts of the system or on other projects.”

The NAO therefore calls for greater strategic oversight of these transformation, ICT and service delivery projects, in the same way that the National Infrastructure Commission oversees and prioritises infrastructure projects.

Most projects – 71% – are also due to be delivered by the end of the current parliament. Of these projects, 36% are rated by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (formerly the MPA) as red or amber red, meaning successful delivery is in doubt or unachievable.

The report notes that this “inevitably puts pressure on departments and creates demand both in government and in the supply chain, for scarce skills including digital, specialist engineering, commercial and project management skills and resources.”

Ministers announced at the end of last year that the Major Projects Authority would be merged with the Treasury's Infrastructure UK. The new Infrastructure and Projects Authority came into being on January 1, with a promise to bring government "expertise, knowledge and skills at managing and delivering major economic projects under one roof for the first time".

Although the report welcomes progress to build the required skills and capability, it points to a number of challenges such as the difficulty in attracting talented individuals from the private sector, and the fact that there is no formal competency framework for project delivery which would make it easier to transfer staff across departments.

Civil service chief John Manzoni is expected to be questioned by MPs on the NAO's findings on January 20.

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