By Tony Collins
Government action to cut the number of failures of big projects including those with a major ICT component has made a difference, the National Audit Office reports today.
In its report “Assurance for major projects” the NAO is largely supportive of actions by the Government, , the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority and the Treasury in setting up reviews of major high-risk projects, including ICT-based programmes, to ensure that if they are failing they are put back on track or cancelled.
The NAO says the Government’s decision to “dismantle” the NPfIT was taken after the project was assessed by the Major Projects Authority.
But the report also shows how civil servants have managed to defy a mandate from the Prime Minister, and a separate NAO recommendation in 2010, for information on the status of big ICT and other high-risk projects to be published.
Says the NAO report
“The ambition to publish project information, as part of the government’s transparency agenda, has not been met.
“Our 2010 report recommended that the government should publicly report project status. We consider that public reporting of project information is key to providing greater accountability for projects and improving project outcomes… Regular transparent reporting of performance which highlights successes and non-compliance would also help to build an enduring assurance system.”
Separately in the report the NAO says
“There has been a lack of progress on transparency. The [Cabinet Office’s Major Projects] Authority has not yet met its commitment to publish project information in line with government’s transparency agenda. The Authority cannot deliver this objective on its own. Senior level discussions are ongoing, between Cabinet Office, HM Treasury and departments, on the arrangements for public reporting.”
Should ministers intevene to force publication?
But the NAO report does not raise the question of why ministers have not intervened to force civil servants to publish the status information on high-risk projects.
Campaign4Changehas argued that publishing status reports on big ICT projects and programmes would be the most effective single action any government could take to reduce the number of failures. (see “Comment” below)
Prime Minister’s 2011 mandate
The NAO’s 2010 recommendation for status information on major projects to be published was backed by a mandate from the Prime Minister in January 2011 which included the undertaking to “require publication of project information consistent with the Coalition’s transparency agenda”.
The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has recommended that departments publish information on the state of their major IT-based projects and programmes; and the Information Commissioner has rejected civil service arguments for not publishing such information.
In addition Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said, when in opposition, that the Conservatives, if they gained power, would publish “Gateway” review reports soon after they are completed. Gateway reports are similar to the assurance reviews carried out for the Major Projects Authority.
Yet none of this has happened.
The “rebel” civil servants
How is it that a group of civil servants who are opposed to publishing information on the status of large risky projects can defy the Prime Minister, Francis Maude, the National Audit Office, and the all-party Public Accounts Committee? Those recalcitrant civil servants argue that assurance reviewers would not tell the whole truth if they knew their assessments would be made public.
But how do we know they tell the whole truth when the reports are kept confidential? The Information Commissioner has pointed out in the past that civil servants have a public duty to be candid and honest. If they are not because their reports are to be published, they are failing in their public duty.
Today’s NAO report says there are differences of opinion among civil servants over whether to publish status information on projects.
Says the NAO
“There has been some support for greater transparency from departments who believe that tracking and publishing major milestones could create helpful tension in the system.
“However, concerns have been raised that increased transparency could limit the value of assurance, as it could inhibit assurance reviewers and project staff holding full and frank discussions.
“Some senior project staff also have concerns that public reporting could have a negative commercial impact, and would prefer delayed rather than real-time public reporting.”
The Cabinet Office told Campaign4Change in 2010 and 2011 that instead of publishing status reports on each major project, it will publish an annual report on the state of its programmes.
But that hasn’t happened either.
Says the NAO:
“As well as the objective to publish project information, the [Major Projects] Authority has not yet met its objective to publish an annual report on government’s major projects.
“The Authority initially expected to publish an annual report in December 2011 but is now expecting the report to be published in May or June 2012. The format of the annual report, and the information it will contain, has yet to be decided.”
Many times over the last 20 years I have said that publishing status reports on major IT-based projects and programmes would be the most effective single action any government could take to deter departments from going ahead with overly ambitious schemes that are doomed to fail. If, against good sense, impractical schemes are approved, publishing status information will make all the difference.
Permanent secretaries will not lose sleep over a failing project, but they will not want information on it published – which is why that information should be published.
Publishing status information would give civil servants a good reason to tackle weaknesses as they developed. Permanent secretaries may not mind losing public money on a failing project or programme. They will always fear embarrassment, however.
Who is really in control of Whitehall – civil servants or No 10? David Cameron’s office has issued a mandate that requires status information on projects to be published. The NAO has issued a similar recommendation. How long can the civil service hold out against the political will?