's Major Projects Authority ain't saving us any money, say MPs

Give us real data and not guff that's six months out of date, thunders Parliament's PAC

MPs have said they are disappointed in the lack of evidence that the Major Projects Authority has reduced's poor track record in delivering big programmes, according to a report released today.

The MPA oversees 149 projects, which have a combined lifetime cost of £511bn – many of which include a large element of IT such as Universal Credit, e-Borders, and the Rural Payment Agency's Common Agricultural Policy IT system.

However, the National Audit Office warned in January that one third of the government's major projects due to be delivered over the next five years are on track to fail.

In its report today the Public Accounts Committee said: "The Committee concludes that while it has supported the Major Projects Authority’s efforts and initiatives, it is disappointing that after nearly five years we cannot see more tangible signs of what impact these initiatives have had”.

It noted that the MPA's most recent data on projects was not good enough to conclude whether project delivery improved: "Nor does the Authority’s annual publication of a limited set of project data six months in arrears give an up to date picture of performance," it said.

Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said the committee's recent report on e-Borders and its successors highlighted the fact that since 2010 the MPA had issued seven warnings about these programmes.

We concluded senior officials were dismissive of these warnings. While we cannot know if this attitude prevails across Whitehall, it is clearly cause for concern. As a priority, government must act to better equip ministers and senior civil servants responsible for such projects with the skills and wider awareness they need to deliver them.

If taxpayers are to get good value for their money, it is vital the Infrastructure and Projects Authority takes action now to ensure it provides effective scrutiny throughout the life of these and other projects.

The report said that "vital scrutiny" of the government’s performance could be weakened by the merger of the Major Projects Authority and Infrastructure UK, with the body "becoming too much of a champion for government projects, at the expense of its vital role in challenging government performance."

It said: "We put it to the Authority that it would not usually be considered wise to merge a delivery organisation with the body responsible for providing independent scrutiny of delivery."

At a PAC hearing in January, chief executive of the civil service (and Cabinet Office permanent secretary) John Manzoni said Whitehall will probably need to bring in "thousands" of digital tech folk to lower the high number of failing IT transformation projects.

Referring to the civil service's skills drive, the report said the service is hiring for digital and commercial skills externally.

"But this presents challenges such as agreeing appropriate remuneration levels. The Authority also told us it was struggling to retain project directors across the Portfolio," it said.

The PAC report recommended the Cabinet Office set out specifically how the ongoing Civil Service reform process will "accommodate the need to hire and retain people with the specialist skills, including commercial and digital technology skills, to deliver projects." ®

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