Systems to check on public services 'not fit for purpose', says NAO

The data systems used to measure the government’s performance against three-year public service targets are either non-existent or not fit for purpose in nearly one fifth of cases, the National Audit Office has found.

The data systems used to measure the government’s performance against three-year public service targets are either non-existent or not fit for purpose in nearly one fifth of cases, the National Audit Office has found.

The public spending watchdog reported findings from its examination of the data systems used by 18 government departments and the Sure Start health and development programme for young children. Between them, the departments have 122 public service agreement targets for 2003-6.

It discovered that for 12% of data systems, the arrangements made by the government departments “were not fit for monitoring and reporting progress against their PSA targets”.

The NAO said: “Most commonly, this was the result of design problems, where the systems established did not measure adequately the aspects of performance included in the target.”

In another 6% of cases, departments had failed to set up the necessary systems by the time of the NAO review.

While 30% of data systems were fit for purpose, the NAO found weaknesses that needed to be addressed in another 29%, with the most common problems being poor control of data collection and documentation and shortcomings in checks on data obtained from external organisations.

The watchdog also highlighted “measurement problems that could not be addressed cost-effectively” in just over 20% of cases. These included 18% where systems were “broadly appropriate” but government departments should explain the data limitations more clearly “to avoid the risk that readers of their performance reports may misinterpret the results”.

Sir John Bourn, who heads the NAO, said: “I welcome the fact that government departments have managed, in many cases, to establish robust data systems where measurement presented considerable difficulties. However, progress across the board in developing sound systems has been variable and departments must overcome the difficulties and develop performance management systems that allow the full benefits of PSA targets to be realised.”

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