Ministers and officials are spending billions of pounds on projects that are never properly evaluated, according to the head of the National Audit Office.
Gareth Davies says that too often the government has not learnt from its failures and has “little information” on “what difference is made by the billions of pounds being spent”.
In an article for The Times Davies, who took over at the spending watchdog in May 2019, says that he was concerned to see that lessons that might have helped the government to deal with Covid had not been learnt.
He says there is little evidence that things have improved even though it has “never been more important that the government makes the right choices” after the pandemic.
Recent research by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that only 8 per cent of big government projects had robust evaluation plans in place.
“Prior to the pandemic the government did take forward many lessons from the simulation exercises it undertook to prepare for potential pandemics,” Davies writes. “However, it did not act on some warnings that would have helped it prepare for a pandemic like Covid-19.”
He adds: “What we have found by auditing government’s work is that many of the interventions carried out by government are either not evaluated robustly or not evaluated at all. This means government is not learning from its successes or failures, and has little information in most policy areas on what difference is made by the billions of pounds being spent.”
Davies cites the Kickstart Scheme, launched amid much fanfare last year to fund employers to create high-quality six-month work placements for people aged 16-24. He says that the Department for Work and Pensions had “limited assurance over the quality of the work placements created by the scheme”, or whether the jobs created “would have existed anyway”.
“Without having done more during the scheme’s operation to monitor what kinds of jobs and training employers are providing in practice, the department will find it much harder to deliver a robust estimate of the scheme’s long-term impact,” he writes.
Davies also says that there are no consequences for failure or not robustly assessing projects and pulling the plug on those that are not performing. “The incentives to evaluate and learn what works and why must be stronger than the instinct to avoid evaluating in case it uncovers bad results,” he writes. “At present public bodies face limited consequences if they do not evaluate their work. This needs to be addressed.”
When Michael Gove was Cabinet Office minister, he pledged to set up an internal Whitehall unit to assess all government projects against their aspirations and pull the plug on those that were not performing well.
“There can be a tendency in government where you get ‘vanity of authorship’, ” Gove said. “It is, ‘I launched this programme and I’ll defend it come what may’. We want people to know that the government is not simply trumpeting the fact that x amount of money has been spent on a new scheme but we go back to citizens and say: ‘This is what we tried. This worked. This didn’t work. This was the basis on which we acted.’ ”
However, Gove has since moved on to levelling up and housing and there have been no more announcements about the proposed evaluation unit.