Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice


Publication of the Committee's 43rd Report of Session 2008-09

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"No one expects that every new project or initiative that government tries will work. Innovation brings with it the risk of failure. What we should expect, however, is that there is a well-informed understanding of that risk; effective and transparent monitoring of progress so that the plug can be pulled early on failing projects; and a fundamental commitment to learning from and acting on experience of past mistakes.

"In its scrutiny of how departments deliver public services, this Committee has seen many examples of departments repeating mistakes that they or other parts of government have made in the past. This failure to learn from experience is particularly serious in the current economic climate when the need to find more efficient and effective ways of delivering services with fewer resources is becoming ever more acute.

"We have drawn up a list of principles which we consider are fundamental to learning and innovation. Departments should reflect upon the extent to which these principles underpin their own culture and practices."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 43rd Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (since replaced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), the Cabinet Office and the National School of Government, examined learning from success and failure, the barriers to learning and innovation, sharing ideas and knowledge, and the role of the centre in promoting this agenda.

To find more efficient and effective ways of delivering services with reduced resources, government need to learn from past experiences, and identify and implement innovative ways of tackling problems. This is particularly important in the current economic climate. Numerous reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General and from this Committee have highlighted that government can repeat the same mistakes and fail to learn from the past. But we have also seen the successful implementation of projects such as the roll out of the Jobcentre Plus network and the ePassport, which demonstrated good learning from piloting and past experience respectively.

Innovation involves trying new things, some of which ultimately will not work. So experimentation is necessary, but with public money at stake, government needs to be able to halt ineffective activities quickly and learn lessons from them. Projects examined by the Committee have suffered from a lack of available project management skills and a failure to nurture those they do have, such as in the C-NOMIS and Bowman projects. Ways of capturing lessons have been introduced, such as the OGC's Gateway Reviews, but some of the projects subject to them have still experienced problems. Government has also paid insufficient attention to analysing the lessons from the reviews. A lack of good management information is still a hindrance in some cases, and inhibits understanding the impact of innovation.

There are a number of barriers to change in government. These include:

a) poor sharing of knowledge across organisational boundaries;

b) risk-averse attitudes which both stifle innovation and prevent lessons being learned;

c) learning and innovation not being built routinely into staff appraisals and competency frameworks;

d) too few ideas being generated from service users, suppliers and other organisations, and their own front-line staff, and

e) many staff considering they do not have the incentives to learn or to innovate.

Government has introduced initiatives to try to tackle these barriers. The HMRC's Angels and Dragons initiative is a well resourced approach which helps staff take forward suggestions with strong senior management backing. More widely, communities of practice of people with specialist knowledge€”for example, the Chief Technology Officers Council and the Change Directors' Network€”are considered by departments as the most useful ways of spreading learning.

The complexity of central government means responsibility for cross-cutting issues will inevitably be distributed across different bodies. The Treasury and Cabinet Office have tried to present a more coherent and consistent message to manage the risk of giving conflicting advice, but Departments are not always clear which part of the centre is responsible for what. In 2008, the central departments established a cross-government working Compact setting out how the centre will work with departments, and they have held joint board meetings.