In an announcement guaranteed to astonish everyone, Members of Parliament have revealed that government is really bad at managing big projects.
The Public Accounts Committee today published a report into the Major Projects Authority (MPA), reports the BBC, in which Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the committee, commented on the findings. She said: “There remain serious weaknesses in government’s project delivery capability” and called for the MPA to have stronger powers to ensure that government follows its recommendations.
The Authority was set up in 2011 in partnership between the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, with a remit to improve project delivery across government. In 2013/14 there were some 199 major projects underway across the governmental departments covering activities such as motorway building, the introduction of Universal Credit, and changes to how departments undertake their work. These were estimated to carry a whole-life cost of £488 billion, up £134 billion on last year.
In a statement released with the findings, Hodge said:
“Despite the scale and the cumulative risk to the taxpayer, these projects are managed as a series of individual projects rather than a portfolio. Nobody in central government is responsible for overseeing projects at a strategic whole-of-government level. We recommend that the Treasury should take ownership and responsibility for overseeing the government portfolio.”
“[Currently] the MPA only has informal influence over departments. It supports the Treasury in approval and funding decisions but there is no obligation on the Treasury to follow its recommendations. It has no powers if a department decides to proceed with a project against MPA advice.
“It needs to have stronger, more formal mechanisms for driving change, and there should be transparency where ministers or officials have rejected its recommendations.”
However she also criticised the Authority for obfuscating over the Universal Credit rollout. The Authority rates each project according to how within budget they are and how the project is progressing, but decided to “reset” the data for Universal Credit rather than release current figures.
On this, Ms Hodge said “We are particularly concerned that the decision to award a ‘reset’ rating to the universal credit project may have been an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny.”
Universal Credit has been Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship policy. Designed to roll a vast number of benefits paid separately into one monthly payment, the policy is intended to make it easier for people on benefits to manage their money and make a smoother transition into work. However, there were concerns over the feasibility of such a large scale IT project as early as October 2011, and a National Audit Office report released in September 2013 revealed that £34m had been written off on failed IT programs. The project, which had been planned for national rollout in April 2013, is now not expected to be in place nationwide until 2017.
Despite the obvious need for strategic decision making over spending priorities at a governmental level, there is some concern over handing yet more powers to unaccountable quangos. Writing for PoliticsHome earlier this year, Natascha Engel MP said “While the transfer of power to these agencies may have been motivated by a genuine commitment to improve public services, the result has been the creation of a bureaucracy which lies beyond the reach of people or Parliament.”