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The small stuff that’s preventing the Government from delivering the big stuff (such as Universal Credit)

By Peter Hoskin
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This isn’t exactly a boom time for that commodity called “government competence”. After the National Audit Office’s uncomplimentary prose about the delivery of Universal Credit, yesterday, it sounds as though the Public Accounts Committee is going to be similarly critical about the course of HS2. According to a report in today’s Daily Mail, the committee will next week “deliver its own ‘damning’ verdict on official plans and costings for the 225mph line”.

Now, I have divergent views about the Universal Credit (one of the most important social reforms that the Coalition is introducing) and HS2 (scrap it, probably) – but there’s a question that unifies the two. And that is: can the Government ever implement its grands projets on time and on budget? At the very least, it often seems to struggle.

This is something that current ministers, fearful of the spectre of Labour’s NHS supercomputer, are acutely aware of. And that’s why they’ve introduced policies to help. In large part, the Coalition’s Whitehall reforms – e.g. ensuring that new permanent secretaries have at least two years’ experience in what they call a “commercial or operational role” – are designed to make sure that Government does the big stuff better. I’ve written about the overall progress of those reforms before, so suffice to say, here, that they are progress.   

But there’s one component of the Whitehall overhaul that deserves further consideration – and that is the Major Projects Authority (MPA). This is part of the Efficiency and Reform Group that the Cabinet Office established in 2010 and that I discussed here, and it’s tasked with keeping an eye on … yep, you guessed it … all of the Government’s major projects, and stepping in if necessary. In fact, you may remember, it published its annual report earlier this year, which coloured each major project as green, amber or red. Universal Credit received an amber/red rating. So did HS2.

This is a good and necessary thing, wouldn’t you say? I would, and Coalition insiders certainly do. They point out how the MPA has already saved taxpayers around £1.7 billion. And they talk appreciatively of David Pitchford, who left his role as director of the body (“for family reasons”) back in July. On his watch, the number of projects achieving a green rating had doubled.

But it’s not all rosy. Problems with the MPA are suggested simply by reading the Universal Credit entry in that annual report. “This rating dates back to September 2012, more than seven months ago,” it says in a section headed “departmental narrative”. And it continues: “Since then, significant progress has been made in the delivery of Universal Credit.” Which reads a little bit too trusting, particularly after the National Audit Office’s report yesterday. One Government source I spoke to put this down to “a general inability to properly join-up the different parts of government – no-one really knows what the others are doing.”   

And there are other concerns, too, as the Institute for Government pointed out in a significant report on What government can learn from London 2012:  

“The Major Projects Authority (MPA) was set up in March 2011 as a joint enterprise between the Cabinet Office and Treasury with the aim of addressing weaknesses in assuring major government projects. Through the Major Projects Leadership Academy – a joint enterprise with Oxford University’s Said Business School – it also aims to train 200 to 300 senior civil servants in project management by 2015.

While government is placing more focus on training civil servants in project management, challenges still remain. The NAO has identified that there are insufficient numbers of MPA-accredited reviewers across government departments, with 38% of government departments lacking adequate formal plans for providing assurance on major projects.”

All of which persuades me even more: the Cabinet Office is the seat of this Government’s radicalism – but it’s stuck in several ruts.


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