Study calls for new approach to government programmes

A new report from Nesta and Public Digital has called for a "complete overhaul" in how government runs programmes; one that will improve public services, reduce risk, save money and rebuild public trust.

The report, titled 'The Radical How', outlines the need to challenge entrenched structures, behaviours and beliefs in Whitehall, and calls for a shift in how the HM Treasury allocate funding.

This comes as data from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, shows that four out of five government programmes cannot guarantee any kind of success. One in 10 are rated ‘red’ – meaning they have no viable route to success. Meanwhile, 80% are rated ‘amber’ meaning they are stuck in a danger zone with neither officials nor Ministers able to say if they will succeed.

This means, of the 224 programmes in government’s current portfolio, only 11% have a ‘green’ rating, indicating a strong likelihood of success. 

10-step plan

The report’s authors, the founders of the Government Digital Service, argue that government must adopt a 10-step plan to modernise how public services are delivered to avoid future failures. 

These include: defining accountability by outcomes; that politicians should set missions and civil servants determine how to fulfil them; developing more multidisciplinary teams; mandating that teams work in the open, sharing successes and failures; funding teams, not programmes; buying or renting services that support these teams; training civil servants for the internet era; investing in digital infrastructure; and showing courage in committing to reform.

The report states very few of these 10 changes are untested. They do not mean throwing everything away and starting again but they do represent a  challenge to entrenched structure.

“Without radical change to the way Whitehall works, there is a real danger that we will see more failures on the scale of HS2, which not only waste huge amounts of taxpayer money but also mean essential public services aren’t delivered to an acceptable standard,” Andrew Greenway, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Public Digital said. “To prevent programmes from crashing and burning, and to build a state which meets citizens’ needs and is fit for the 21st century, we need to see a radical step change in the way Ministers and officials operate.”

The report also calls for a "fundamental shift" in the way the Treasury allocates funding. Traditionally, a full project is planned out and contracted before work begins meaning programmes can end up “staggering on even after it becomes clear they are no longer viable.”

It points to the failure of the Green Deal, which took five years and cost taxpayers £240 million, as a "textbook example of linear programme management processes leading to an increase in the risk of failure."

To prevent this from happening, the report calls for a a test-and-learn approach, where programmes are gradually rolled out and continuously improved over time. 

James Plunkett, Chief Practices Officer at Nesta, said: “It is increasingly clear governments are struggling to cope with the pace and complexity of today's biggest problems. The idea of mission-oriented government is to adopt more responsive ways of working, more focused on outcomes.

"But there's also a risk that the language changes while the machine rumbles on. To get this right we need to embrace some quite radical changes to how Whitehall functions - moving away from a world of projects and programmes to one of services and missions.”

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