Government major projects watchdog needs more powers, says MPs

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Government major projects watchdog needs more powers, says MPs

Caroline Baldwin

The government’s Major Projects Authority, which assesses hundreds of transformative departmental projects, needs stronger powers to improve project delivery across government.

A Public Accounts committee (PAC) has said the MPA has only an “informal influence” over departments, and there is no obligation for MPA recommendations to be followed.

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The Treasury currently takes MPA recommendations into account when make spending decisions, but is under no formal obligation to follow them.

The lifetime costs of projects in the MPA’s portfolio are estimated to be £488bn, up £134bn from the previous year. And a significant proportion of those projects are IT-dependent projects.

From 199 projects assessed during September of last year, 20 IT projects required urgent action or reassessing to be delivered successfully.

But, despite the MPA’s warnings, it has no powers to stop departments from proceeding with a project against advice.

MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said that without stronger powers the MPA is unlikely to “achieve its aim of a systemic improvement in project delivery across government.”

The PAC recommends that the chief executive of the MPA should have a formal mechanism available if a project proceeds contrary to MPA advice to cancel or re-cope. It also recommends that, when ministers reject MPA recommendations, there should be a transparent process in place to document it.

Focus on the high-risk projects

The PAC also said the MPA could improve its impact by prioritising its work more effectively, by focussing on departments with the high-risk projects, such as the Department of Health, with two red and nine amber-red rated projects, and the Ministry of Defence with one red and six amber rated projects.

The MPA should also work closer with departments to improve their project planning, because a lack of robust planning can lead to red-ratings like the Department of Health’s two IT projects - the Public Services Network for Health (PSNH) and the N3 Extension.

"The MPA should also publish more information on each project, including the amount spent to date, even if this means reviewing the government’s transparency policy,” said Hodge.

She also said the PAC was particularly concerned about the MPA’s decisions to provide a ‘reset’ rating to the Universal Credit project, saying this may “have been an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny.”

In June the PAC accused the MPA of disguising the troubled Universal Credit programme in a “veil of secrecy” by not providing a colour rating on its current status.

A month before this, the MPA released its annual report of 199 transformative major projects and gave them a traffic light colour to reflect their status. More than 20 IT-based projects were labelled red or amber/red to indicate urgent action or reassessment.

But the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) Universal Credit was assigned neither a red, amber nor green rating, and was instead classed as "reset".

John Manzoni, chief executive of Major Projects Authority, argued the reset rating was an accurate description of the project when the MPA collected its data in September 2013.

At the time, the department wrote off £34m of IT work from the troubled Universal Credit programme. It also reviewed more than £140m of money it had already spent on the project to determine if the IT developed had any lasting value. Despite the write-off, the projected IT budget for the programme increased by 60% from £396m to £637m.


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