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18.03.16

Merger threatens Major Projects Authority’s ability to hold government accountable

The future of government projects could be threatened due to concerns about the Major Projects Authority’s (MPA’s) ability to deliver them and about its neutrality following a merger with Infrastructure UK, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned.

In a new report, the PAC says that since the MPA is meant to be independent whereas Infrastructure UK is meant to promote the development of infrastructure, the merger at the beginning of this year to form the Infrastructure and Projects Authority risks weakening scrutiny of the government’s performance.

There are also serious concerns about the MPA’s current effectiveness, with 34% of the 149 projects in its portfolio rated ‘red’ or ‘amber red’ (meaning successful delivery is either unachievable or in doubt unless action is taken) in June 2015.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “There is clearly a role within government for an independent organisation that challenges departments about their plans and projects.

“One of our concerns is that this important function is not weakened or undermined following the creation of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

“But we also question just how effective the previous Major Projects Authority has been in bringing meaningful influence to bear on government performance.

“Its own assessments cast doubt on the deliverability of a third of government’s major projects and there are grounds to question how seriously its warnings have been taken by government.”

It also says that the MPA does not collect enough data to allow overview of the success of projects, that there is a lack of experience delivering major projects among MPs and civil servants, and that the Civil Service lacks staff members with the skills to deliver major projects.

Major projects that have failed recently include digital delivery of the Common Agricultural Policy. The MPA warned that it was currently concerned about the future of HS2, courts reforms and the planned introduction of shared services.

The PAC recommend that the MPA report back to them in January 2017 on the benefits of the merger with Infrastructure UK and how it has improved data collection and analysis, strengthened its plans for early intervention in over-ambitious projects, pushed departments to state the benefits of projects clearly and offer seminars and workshops for project delivery leaders.

It also said that the Cabinet Office should set out how the ongoing Civil Service reform processes will accommodate the need to hire and retain people with the specialist skills, including commercial and digital technology skills, to deliver projects.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to improving the way major projects are delivered. That is why we set up the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, to help build vital infrastructure, to improve public services and to save taxpayers money.

“The IPA will be a single centre of expertise for project development, financing, assurance and support in government. The Authority will bring together the Cabinet Office and Treasury for the more efficient and effective deployment of expert resource to the highest priority areas. We value the PAC’s recommendations and will consider how the IPA can best take these forward.”

Writing for PSE last year, Josie Cluer, public sector lead at transformation consultancy Moorhouse, said that there were signs that the MPA is improving but that it needs to do more to increase its impact.

(Image c. Dragados-Sisk JV / John Zammit)

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