The National Audit Office have published a report into the assurance of major government projects, a portfolio currently valued at a whole-life cost of £376 billion. Following an earlier report by the NAO in 2010, a number of changes have been made to the central assurance regime, including the creation of the Major Projects Authority in March 2011. The latest NAO report lists a number of remaining weaknesses, including the degree of compliance across departments, HM Treasury buy-in and a lack of standard ways of working.
Historically, central efforts to improve the performance of government projects have focused on improving programme and project management and the use of independent (Gateway) reviews. Despite recent major project failures such as the NHS National IT Programme, the focus appears to be on the need for greater rigour, rather than any change in approach.
Greater rigour may indeed be needed, but I see three major weaknesses with the current regime:
- In terms of what is being assured, there is an excessive focus on “project management practices and approaches”. But these do not deliver projects. Far more important is assuring the ‘technical’ approach and the design, i.e. the actual value work. These have a much greater bearing on cost, time and quality.
- There is a lot of attention paid to the management process surrounding the assurance of major projects, but very little to the actual act of assurance. Effective independent assurance is not an easy task. It is by its nature subject to limited time and information. It requires the ability to see the ‘wood for the trees’ and to quickly focus in on the things that the success of a particular project will turn on. This is not a capability easily acquired.
- The process of central assurance, as set out in the report and on the MPA own web pages, comes across as very much stand-alone, rather than being integrated with the assurance processes that should exist within the project itself. Independent assurance should be seen as an integral part of the project’s overall quality management system, as set out in the project’s Quality Plan, within which the required MPA “Integrated Assurance and Approval Plans” should be embedded. This would create a far stronger assurance regime and help re-enforce those doing assurance on the ground.
If I was being a nit-picking Quality Management bod, I would say that what is referred to as “assurance” in the NAO report and by the MPA is more akin to quality control. Anyone with a manufacturing background will know that quality assurance is about fixing the thing that created the specific instance of the error, whilst quality control is about fixing the error, in this case a particular problem with a given programme or project.
But behind this minor point is a much more important one, which to be fair to MPA, is acknowledged as a current weakness. A system of assurance requires an effective feedback mechanism. Currently there is none.
The measure of success of any assurance system is that over time you need to do less of it, because the detected error rate reduces, i.e. the ‘system’ is in a stable, predictable state. Ultimately, you cannot inspect in quality. Large scale improvements in government project delivery will only come when the lessons have been learnt and are acted upon.
I subsequently submitted this post as written evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in June 2012. This can be viewed here: