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Transformations create challenges for auditors

13/02/17

NAO director points to complexities in assessing achievements of major programmes

Government might need to develop a new way of measuring the achievements of major transformation programmes, according to a leading official of the National Audit Office (NAO).

Whitehall street signMax Tse, director of transformation for the central government auditor, was speaking at the Think.Digital Government 2017 conference at the end of last week.

He said the NAO, which carries out assessments of the value of major transformations, is aware that the definition can vary according to circumstances.

While the financial element is always important, there are other features to take into account around final outcomes and the “options” for new approaches to running services.

“The really big challenge at the moment is ‘How do you think about the value of options?’,”” Tse said. “We’re doing a lot at the moment to explore things that may turn out to be fantastic, may not, but they have value and we are learning from that.

“We don’t really have a natural way of understanding the value of those options – it’s the sort of thing financial specialists find very difficult – and in government that’s an incredibly difficult process.”

Business case limits

He also said there are limits to relying on auditing a programme against the business case, although this requires striking the right balance between that and other factors.

“When we look at a programme we look at the business case first, the line items tell us a lot about what it is trying to do,” he said.

“There is also a place for a more open discovery process to look at whether things might work. What we haven’t got right is the link between those two things.”

Tse identified three big trends in the way government organisations are approaching transformation. One is to focus on short term tactical improvements, such as placing services online or automating processes “at the margins”.

The second is to improve flexibility, although there is some resistance to this as “it isn’t a natural instinct of government to say let’s spend large amount of money improving things to make them better in the future without a definitive outcome in mind”.

The third is around very complex transformation programmes that bring together technology, processes and business design.

He also said that the UK’s approaching withdrawal from the EU would shift a lot of processes from Brussels back to Whitehall and the devolved administrations. In some cases this could make it possible to reduce the complexity, while in others it could impose new burdens and create problems.

Image by Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

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