Civil Service ‘overcommitted’ to projects which suffer from ‘optimism bias’ – NAO head

A change of attitude is needed to stop the government from overcommitting itself to major projects it can’t deliver, the head of the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.

Speaking at the Institute for Government last night, Sir Amyas Morse said: “We must start by not pretending that the Civil Service can deliver whatever minsters throw at it.

“The civil service is overcommitted. Our work gives us ample evidence of this.”

He said that the public sector had a tendency to “overcommit” to projects because of the desire of each government minister to “make his or her mark” by starting new projects, and then suffers from “optimism bias” about delivering projects at an appropriate cost.

Sir Amyas’ speech came on the same day as two major new reports from the NAO, which found that the 2015 Spending Review and single departmental plans are not making sufficient progress in ensuring the government delivers value for money for its projects.

He added that “doing things well is more complicated than it used to be” in government because government work is more interdependent and technical while trying to deliver projects with smaller budgets and workforces.

Capability gap

The NAO is preparing a study on the Civil Service ‘capability gap’. For example, it needs to recruit an additional 2,800 staff with the digital skills needed to deliver projects in the next five years, at a cost of £213m.

The latest annual independent report from the Civil Service Commission found that it had to leave 22% of senior appointments unfilled last year because of a lack of suitable applicants, partly because it is struggling to attract candidates with digital and commercial experience.

Sir Amyas said that his “hunch” was that the government would have a plan to close the gap, but that it would not be “comprehensive.”

He also warned that government projects will be even harder to deliver as civil servants are transferred from existing work to tackle the “abnormal challenge” of supporting the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

One of Theresa May’s first actions as prime minister was to appoint David Davis in the new post of secretary for the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Sir Amyas said: “My experience of watching the public sector at close quarters tells me the system could come to a halt under its own weight.

“We will have set civil servants a Herculean task and set them up to fail. And none of us can afford that.”

He argued that “a wider, overarching and imposed approach” from the government was needed to help reduce the number of commitments, which could involve “not adding projects, or cancelling existing ones”.

“Let's use this historic juncture to change the way we manage government,” he said, “and plan on a holistic basis so that ministers and civil servants can look across the whole of government activities and decide what is essential and what is not. This is crucial for achieving value for money.”

Sir Jeremy Heywood, head of the civil service, has told civil servants that they will be responsible for supporting the exit from the EU with “calm and commitment”.

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