Public Accounts Committee “unconvinced” by new Infrastructure and Projects Authority — and urges focus on civil service specialists

PAC report casts doubt on ability of beefed-up major projects watchdog to scrutinise government’s biggest schemes, and calls on Cabinet Office to explain how it will meet skills shortages needed for "transformation"

By Jim Dunton

18 Mar 2016

MPs have questioned the ability of the newly-formed Infrastructure and Projects Authority to properly hold government to account on major project spending because of its contrasting roles as both champion and watchdog.

The IPA was formed through the January merger of the Major Projects Authority — set up in 2011 to provide independent assurance and support for the government’s £511bn Major Projects Portfolio — and the Treasury’s own Infrastructure UK, which was established in 2010 to promote major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail.

But, according to the Public Accounts Committee’s latest report,  the IPA has so far been unable to demonstrate how it will provide better performance in comparison with its predecessors.

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PAC also calls on the Cabinet Office to explain how it will address skills shortages that hamper the delivery of the government’s highest-cost major projects, both in terms of team members and top-level oversight.

The MPs say the IPA “is still looking at the plans of the two merged bodies and identifying ways the merger will improve performance”. They urge the new body to report back to PAC in January next year, spelling out the benefits of the merger as well as details on how its data collection and analysis has been improved “to allow a transparent, open and honest dialogue about project performance”.

Hillier: merger may have “weakened or undermined” scrutiny

Elsewhere, the committee warns that the civil service is facing serious skills shortages in delivering major projects, especially in those commercial and digital skills needed to deliver “transformation” projects, such as courts reform or Universal Credit.

One of the report’s recommendations is that the Cabinet Office should “set out specifically” how the ongoing civil service reform process will accommodate the need to hire and retain people with the specialist skills, and how challenges such as agreeing appropriate remuneration levels will be addressed.

Committee chair Meg Hillier (pictured) said there was clearly a role within government for an independent organisation to challenge departments about their plans and projects.

But she said the IPA’s creation may have “weakened or undermined” arrangements, while adding that the effectiveness of its predecessor the MPA was hard to judge.

“Its own assessments cast doubt on the deliverability of a third of government’s major projects and there are grounds to question how seriously its warnings have been taken by government,” she said.

“Our committee’s recent report on e-Borders and its successors highlighted the fact that since 2010, the Major Projects Authority issued seven warnings about these programmes.

“We concluded senior officials were dismissive of these warnings. While we cannot know if this attitude prevails across Whitehall it is clearly cause for concern.

“As a priority, government must act to better equip ministers and senior civil servants responsible for such projects with the skills and wider awareness they need to deliver them.

“Ambitious timetables for delivery are of little value to the public if they simply cannot be met. Failing to plan properly and set realistic delivery targets from the outset can set in train expensive problems for which taxpayers pick up the bill.”

Manzoni: IPA will have teeth

The committee’s report is based on a January evidence session with civil service chief executive John Manzoni and the IPA’s chief executive Tony Meggs, who headed up the MPA before the merger. Meggs told that session that the High Speed 2 rail line, courts reform, and the Whitehall-wide shared services programme were the three major projects in the current portfolio that caused most concern at the IPA. 

And he said he did not believe the authority’s creation had undermined the accountability demonstrated by the predecessor organisation, telling the committee the merged bodies would benefit from greater expertise.

That was echoed by Manzoni, who said the involvement of the Treasury would in fact bolster scrutiny of the Major Projects Portfolio by giving the MPA “teeth” in its assurance role.

“Now it’s the Treasury and the Cabinet Office saying ‘by the way, the following conditions have to be met before you go through this gate’,” the civil service chief said. “There isn’t any space between the two in this new entity, and I think that’s actually going to strengthen that aspect of the MPA, not weaken it.”

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