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Transparency and honesty key to major programmes success, says NAO

Major government projects often lack underlying data on costs and benefits, and it’s often not clear who is accountable for integration of different elements, according to a National Audit Office report on lessons learned on the programmes

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a report on lessons learned from major programmes in government.

The report, focuses on infrastructure projects, rather than purely transformation and digital projects, and sets out several “learning points” for government on how to run major programmes, which is applicable across the board.

“Many current programmes combine bespoke features and new technology, and aim to be transformational, whether that is transforming services, communities, or departmental systems,” it said, highlighting projects such as the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme and High Speed Two (HS2).

“Some complexity in government programmes is also created by necessity – for example, in programmes to introduce advanced new military capability or to overhaul outdated government IT systems.”

It also highlighted the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) flagship digital benefits programme, Universal Credit, as an example of where it has “observed weaknesses in the form of information”.

“During the early stages of the Universal Credit programme, we reported that the DWP lacked a detailed plan or management information, which meant that it could not measure its progress effectively against what it was trying to achieve,” it said, adding that the department has “since improved its use of performance measures”.

It said that for all major programmes, different types of information may be important at different stages, and that for “the right information to flow through the programme, bodies must work to embed a culture of transparency and honesty throughout an organisation and into the supply chain”.

“Underpinning all our themes is the need for transparency and honesty both within government and throughout the supply chain. Accurate, timely and relevant information is crucial to guide and monitor the delivery of programmes,” it said.

“Despite its importance, we have found issues with both the technical quality of programme information, as well as organisational cultures preventing the right information from emerging. Without these, the quality of decision-making may suffer from over-optimistic assessments of programme progress and problems that could have been identified earlier may suddenly emerge.”

The report also highlighted weaknesses in using estimates for cost and schedule targets, and said government often likes to announce the cost and schedule of a programme early on. However, the NAO said that estimates at the concept stage of a project will often be based on “high-level” information and lacks details, meaning that assumptions have to be made, and costs and scheduling targets will likely change as the project goes on.

“In many programmes we have reviewed, governments have not sufficiently recognised the inherent uncertainties and risks in early estimates, and have used them to set budgets and a completion date. We then see situations where forecast cost and schedules exceed early estimates as these uncertainties and risks crystallise,” the report said.

It added that it has seen “certain behaviours indicating that a programme’s schedule and deadline are becoming increasingly unrealistic”. These include persistent replanning of the timeline to meet the deadline, “often accompanied by ever more ambitious assumptions and proposals to reach it”, as well as cutting the time set for operations and systems testing at the end of the programme, and changing the scope and/or benefits from the programme.

Clarity is key

The report also highlighted cases where it is often not clear who is accountable for integrating various elements of a programme.

“Delivery bodies often expect that integration will emerge from collaboration between delivery partners (be they from other parts of government or industry) but, in practice, collaboration is weakly incentivised. Even when a body identifies a programme partner as being responsible for integrating elements of the programme,” it said.

This was the case with the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) electronic monitoring programme. The aim of the programme was to transform and expand the monitoring service, reduce annual costs by 9% to 30%, and “provide wider operational benefits” by developing a world-leading ankle tag combining both radio frequency (RF) transmission and GPS technology. The project, which began in 2011, was due to deploy new electronic tags in November 2013, but by July 2017, when the NAO published a report saying it had failed to achieve value for money, the tags had yet to be deployed.

The NAO said the MoJ was responsible for integrating the different elements of the programme into its contract with Capita, and the ministry saw Capita’s role as taking on some of the risk “that would traditionally fall to a prime contractor and managing the other three suppliers proactively”.

“However, Capita was contractually not responsible for the work and performance of the other suppliers, and considered it lacked leverage to perform the integrator role,” the report said.

It added that government bodies need to “clearly define who is responsible for integration, and ensure that they have the appropriate authority and levers to coordinate other elements of the programme”.

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