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Gov departments need better data systems, NAO says

8% 'not fit for purpose'

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The National Audit Office wants improvements in the data systems used to measure performance across Whitehall

Many government departments need to improve the data systems they use to report progress in meeting official targets, finance watchdog the National Audit Office has said in its latest validation report.

It found that eight per cent of government data systems were not fit for purpose, six per cent were too new to be assessed, and one percent had not been set up.

The audit office examined the quality of 237 data systems used by 17 departments to measure progress against their 2005-08 Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets. PSAs were first introduced in 1998 to improve the accountability of government spending.

Overall the review found that although departments have improved the quality of their data systems - 50 per cent were fit for purpose and some 35 per cent were broadly appropriate but needed strengthening - they have been less successful at transferring the learning to the development of new data systems.

The report concludes that this year's Comprehensive Spending Review has introduced a number of changes to the PSA framework, aimed at strengthening accountability. The audit office says these changes will address a number of the recommendations it has made about data systems.

A key recommendation is that departments should give greater consideration to measurement issues when setting new PSAs, specifically that all the elements of performance that they are targeting are defined and measurable.

They should also evaluate existing data sources to assess their suitability for PSA monitoring purposes, says the audit office. Reports to management boards should disclose limitations to data quality and departments should introduce a management function to challenge and approve data quality.

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, said: "Good quality data is essential if performance measures and targets are to be used effectively to improve public sector delivery and accountability.

"It is good news that data systems are improving, but departments must transfer these lessons to their new data systems. If we are to have confidence in the performance reported by government, all systems used to monitor it must be robust."

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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