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Digital public sector news, research & engagement

Friday 4 May 2012Author: Michael Cross

Whitehall rapped for major projects secrecy

Government auditors have given a cautious welcome to the government's efforts to manage its "major projects" more effectively. However the National Audit Office (NAO) says that Whitehall is still resisting calls to publish data on its portfolio of 205 projects, valued at £376 billion.

Of these projects, 39 are still rated red or amber red for "delivery confidence", the NAO reveals.
The NAO has repeatedly lambasted Whitehall departments for delays and cost over-runs in major projects, ranging from aircraft carriers to hospital IT systems. In 2010 it called for a the creation of a central assurance mechanism. The government responded by setting up the Major Projects Authority as a partnership between theCabinet Office and HM Treasury.

The latest report describes this as a step "in the right direction". It notes that the authority has shown teeth: the decision to dismantle the National Programme for IT in the English NHS was taken after it was reviewed by the authority in 2010.

However the NAO rebukes the government for failing to be open about projects. "We consider that public reporting of project information is key to providing greater accountability for projects and improving project outcomes." So far, and despite the government's transparency agenda, the Major Projects Authority has not yet met its commitment to publish project information, the report says.

Much of the blame lies with individual departments. While there has been "some support" for greater transparency "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 authority has also failed to promise a published annual report on major projects. This was initially promised in December 2011. "The format of the annual report, and the information it will contain, has yet to be decided," the NAO reports.

Overall, large parts of the major projects assurance system are informal and undocumented, depending heavily on individuals. The NAO calls on the authority to formalise how it plans, prioritises and undertakes assurance activity for departments, how it learns and disseminates lessons from projects and reviews, and how it will continuouslyimprove the system.