Effective project design and delivery is vital for taxpayer returns
Government annual spending on high-profile construction and defence infrastructure projects runs into the billions of pounds, and although these are often projected to provide considerable taxpayer returns in the future, effective project design and delivery is vital if these forecasts are to be realised.
In an interim report published ahead of the dissolution of Parliament, PACAC outlines key themes raised so far during its inquiry and recommends that a successor Committee continues investigating these issues in the future.
Chair of the Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP said:
“The purpose of major infrastructure projects should be to deliver benefits to the public, and our Civil Service is rightly charged with ensuring these are delivered as originally advertised. However, our inquiry to date has raised familiar concerns: capability, churn, conflicts of interest, and perhaps most concerningly, individual political imperatives overriding proper scrutiny of business cases.
“With Government’s Major Projects Portfolio currently overseeing 133 projects with a value of £423 billion, addressing these issues to the benefit of all taxpayers should be high on the list of priorities for any future Government.”
Central Government oversight
The report highlights a trend of increasing oversight from the centre of Government, although individual departments remain responsible for major project delivery. It recommends further examination of the relationship between the Infrastructure Projects Authority and individual departments, and how it can best develop capability through its leadership of the cross-government Project Leadership Function.
Civil Service capability and skills
This has been an issue long highlighted by PACAC inquiries, and the report welcomes investment in developing the skills base necessary for the delivery of major projects. It also highlights the need for long-term assessment of whether this investment has yielded better delivery.
Churn and conflicts of interest
Alongside capability, the impact of ‘churn’ has been similarly highlighted as posing considerable challenges across the Civil Service. The Committee’s report acknowledges that while the lengthy nature of many major projects makes a certain level of staff turnover inevitable, and sometimes desirable as projects unfold, there are undeniably negative consequences that can only be partially mitigated against; such as the potential for conflicts of interest. It recommends that a successor Committee focus on potential solutions to this acute challenge.
Political pressure in planning
The report argues that a poorly planned project often never recovers, and pre-approval scrutiny of business cases must therefore be robust and unvarnished in its ultimate assessment of project viability. Whilst it is entirely appropriate for Ministers to initiate projects, political pressure must not undermine in this scrutiny process.
Evaluating project benefits
The report fully accepts the difficulties inherent in forecasting the benefits of major projects, and subsequently evaluating whether they have been delivered as planned. However, it underlines that major projects should not be viewed as an end in themselves but rather as a way of delivering public policy goals. The linkage between projects and the needs they are supposed to address, and proper evaluation of whether they have done so, cannot be overlooked when considering how best to deliver them in the future.
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