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Nesta calls for new approach to government programmes


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Innovation agency Nesta has called for an overhaul of how government runs programmes and a sharp change in the way they are funded.

Nesta – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – has published a report on the issue, titled The Radical How, based on research with consultancy Public Digital.

It says that analysis of data from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority shows that almost one in 10 government programmes are rated ‘red’, with no viable route to success, at a combined cost of nearly £100 billion.

In addition, 80% are rated ‘amber’ meaning they are stuck in a danger zone with neither officials or ministers able to say if they will succeed. Only 11% have a ‘green’ rating indicating a strong likelihood of success.

The report cites the example of the Coalition Government’s Green Deal policy on energy-efficiency in people’s homes. It took five years and cost £240 million, but in 2016 the National Audit Office declared that it “failed to delivery any meaningful benefit” as its design and implementation did not convince householders that energy-efficiency measures were worth paying for.

It points out that there are currently 224 programmes within the Government’s portfolio, with a cost of £805 million, and calls for a shift in the way that HM Treasury allocates funding.

Spending change

Current orthodoxies dictate that spending should be front loaded, with a full project planned out before work begins and contracts signed off for up to a decade. This often fails to account for the possibility that systems may not work as they are meant to, or that external events may radically change the context in which a programme is delivered.

This means that programmes could stagger on even after it becomes clear they are no longer viable.

Instead, the report advocates that officials should focus on building capacity, creating skilled multidisciplinary teams to roll out services, and adopting a ‘test and learn’ approach that allows for continuous improvement.

It comes up with 10 key changes in how programmes should be approached: making outcomes the lead priority; defining accountability by outcomes; that politicians should set missions and civil servants determine how to fulfil them; developing more multidisciplinary teams; mandating that teams work in the open, sharing successes and failures; funding teams, not programmes; buying or renting services that support these teams; training civil servants for the internet era; investing in digital infrastructure; and showing courage in committing to reform.

The report says that few of these are untested and that it does not mean throwing everything away and starting again, but they do represent a challenge to entrenched structures.

More responsive

James Plunkett, chief practices officer at Nesta, said: “It is increasingly clear governments are struggling to cope with the pace and complexity of today's biggest problems. The idea of mission oriented government is to adopt more responsive ways of working, more focused on outcomes.

"But there's also a risk that the language changes while the machine rumbles on. To get this right we need to embrace some quite radical changes to how Whitehall functions, moving away from a world of projects and programmes to one of services and missions.”

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