Tombaky - Fotolia

Government has poor track record in delivering major projects, says NAO

Out of 149 major government projects with total lifetime costs of £511bn, including 40 ICT projects, a third is rated red or amber-red, the National Audit Office has found

The National Audit Office (NAO) is concerned with the government’s “poor track record in delivering major projects”, as it has found that a third of the government’s major projects are rated red or amber-red.

A progress report published by the NAO, which looks at what measures the government has put in place to deliver major projects, found that the Government Major Project Portfolio totals 149 projects worth £511bn, with an expected spend of £25bn in 2016.

Some 106 of the projects are scheduled to be completed by 2019-20, with 80% of these aiming to transform the way services are delivered or accessed through the use of new technologies.

This includes 40 IT projects, totaling £20bn in lifetime costs, such as the e-Borders programme and its successor, and the rural payments digital service.

The report highlights a high turnover of senior responsible officers (SROs) as one of the challenges in these projects. The NAO said that only four of the 73 programmes that have been in the government’s major project portfolio for four years have had a single SRO. The report also mentioned skills shortages in areas such as risk management and behaviour change as concerning.

Since its 2011 report on central government’s skills requirements, the NAO has found that “some of the departments with the largest portfolio have gaps in commercial and digital expertise” and often rely on contractors to fill the gaps.

In 2015, the NAO critisised the e-Borders programme for its high level of turnover. The programme had five directors during its e-Borders period, including three interims, and between 2010 and 2014 there were a further two programme directors.

The rural payments digital service project also came under fire from both the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in 2015, as the often changing senior management were known for “bickering and poor leadership”. Over the course of the programme, which began in 2012, there were four different SROs involved, with each one changing the priorities of the programme, the NAO said.

The report adds that although there have been new initiatives put in place to improve oversight and delivery of projects, their “impact is unclear”, and a third of the projects are rated as “being in doubt or unachievable if action is not taken to improve delivery”.

NAO head Amyas Morse said he acknowledged that “a number of positive steps” have been taken by the project authrotiy and the departments.

“At the same time, I am concerned that a third of projects monitored by the authority are red or amber-red and the overall picture of progress on project performance is opaque. More effort is needed if the success rate of project delivery is to improve,” he said.

The report added that despite government taking steps to improve project management and capability, it’s still difficult to tell “whether performance is improving” as there is no reliable and consistent measure of the success of a project.

“Despite some improvements in the level of information published on major projects, there are still a number of issues which make it difficult to form conclusions about trends in performance,” the NAO said.

“These include the amount of project turnover in the portfolio; the limited data published by departments; inconsistent reporting of costs; and no systematic monitoring of whether the intended benefits have been achieved.”

Read more on IT for government and public sector