Government failing to learn lessons in major projects

February 27, 2009 12:04 PM

A National Audit Office report – ‘Helping Government Learn’ – was released today outlining the need for Government departments to learn from past failures. Several projects were noted for their success, but just as many were flagged up as cases where lessons had not been heeded.


For instance the implementation of Child Support reforms ran into serious trouble, and the Public Accounts Committee concluded at the time that the Department for Work and Pensions’ management had “showed a lack of realism in both planning and execution”. The department spent £91 million during 2001-2005 on outside help with implementing the reforms, which was clearly money wasted, and it is not clear that it has learnt from these mistakes.


The NHS IT project is another obvious culprit identified in the report. The perpetual lack of learning – the reports notes - has seen it run way over schedule and costs ballon to over £12 billion in cost. While some claim that it is still within budget, this is a convenient trick; budgets have been consistently scaled up to match anticipated costs. That is not, as the NAO report, good practice.


The failure of government to identify difficulties in their programmes, and a failure to share knowledge of good practice across departments, invariably burdens future projects with bad management and the attendant over-spending. In a report 3 years ago the Public Accounts Committee said that they were concerned about policy implementation and ‘the repetition of mistakes, even after the causes have been identified’. Indeed seven years before that the Government itself said:



“The public service must become a learning organisation. It needs to learn from its past successes and failures. It needs consistently to benchmark itself against the best wherever that is found”. White Paper Modernising Government (1999)


It seems few departments have taken this advice on board.

A National Audit Office report – ‘Helping Government Learn’ – was released today outlining the need for Government departments to learn from past failures. Several projects were noted for their success, but just as many were flagged up as cases where lessons had not been heeded.


For instance the implementation of Child Support reforms ran into serious trouble, and the Public Accounts Committee concluded at the time that the Department for Work and Pensions’ management had “showed a lack of realism in both planning and execution”. The department spent £91 million during 2001-2005 on outside help with implementing the reforms, which was clearly money wasted, and it is not clear that it has learnt from these mistakes.


The NHS IT project is another obvious culprit identified in the report. The perpetual lack of learning – the reports notes - has seen it run way over schedule and costs ballon to over £12 billion in cost. While some claim that it is still within budget, this is a convenient trick; budgets have been consistently scaled up to match anticipated costs. That is not, as the NAO report, good practice.


The failure of government to identify difficulties in their programmes, and a failure to share knowledge of good practice across departments, invariably burdens future projects with bad management and the attendant over-spending. In a report 3 years ago the Public Accounts Committee said that they were concerned about policy implementation and ‘the repetition of mistakes, even after the causes have been identified’. Indeed seven years before that the Government itself said:



“The public service must become a learning organisation. It needs to learn from its past successes and failures. It needs consistently to benchmark itself against the best wherever that is found”. White Paper Modernising Government (1999)


It seems few departments have taken this advice on board.

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