Third of major UK government projects 'in doubt or unachievable'

6 January 2016

Nearly a third of government projects due to be completed in the next five years are rated as being in doubt or unachievable, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report.

The progress report said projects including major service reforms, IT programmes and infrastructure and construction projects are at risk of failure unless action is taken.

According to the report there are currently 149 projects in the Government Major Project Portfolio with a combined whole-life cost of £511bn and an expected spend of £25bn in 2015-16. This does include programmes delivered through other bodies such as Network Rail.

The report said the public sector had a “poor track record in delivering projects successfully” and said the impact of initiatives designed to improve oversight and delivery was unclear.

It called for an effective mechanism to be developed for prioritising projects across government.

“The NAO has often reported on the difficulties caused for government projects by unrealistic expectations and over-optimism,” the organisation said.

Recurring problems include an absence of portfolio management at both departmental and government level, lack of clear, consistent data with which to measure performance, poor early planning; lack of capacity and capability to undertake a growing number of projects and a lack of clear accountability for leadership of a project.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (formerly the Major Projects Authority) and government departments had taken positive steps to develop capability and provide greater assurance on improving project delivery, the report said.

“However, it is difficult to tell whether performance is improving without reliable and consistent measures of project success,” the NAO added.

This uncertainty was compounded by the amount of project turnover in the portfolio, limited data published by departments, inconsistent reporting of costs and lack of systematic monitoring of whether benefits have been achieved.

However, the number of projects where successful delivery was in doubt or unachievable unless action was taken had increased since 2012 as more high risk projects have entered the portfolio, the report said.

Some 37 out of 106 projects due to deliver in the next five years now warranted a red or amber-red rating, which means they are in doubt or unachievable unless action is taken.

The report added that nearly 80 per cent of projects due to be delivered by 2019-20 involved changing the way services are delivered or accessed and such projects present the greatest risk of failure.

“Progress in improving portfolio management is disappointing with no single organisation having a view of the whole portfolio of government projects,” said the NAO. “There is a need to balance ambition and realism in setting goals.”

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