Auditors urge government to stop ‘undeliverable’ projects

24 Mar 17

The government needs to drop projects it does not think it can deliver, the National Audit Office has said.

In a report published today, the spending watchdog said the civil service is being asked to manage important reforms although it has reduced in size by 26% since 2006.

The whole-life costs of projects in the government’s major projects portfolio is £405bn but departments gave themselves an average score of 2.1 out of five for their current capability in workforce planning. 

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said although the government has plans to address skills gaps in the civil service the “scale of the challenge ahead means greater urgency is needed”.

“Government has gaps in its capability and knows it must do more to develop the skills it needs,” he said.

“Without a short-term solution to its capability gaps government must get better at planning and prioritising its activities and be prepared to stop work on those it is not confident it has the capability to deliver.”

Civil servants face increased pressures due to a rise in the number of infrastructure, capital and digital projects and the decision to leave the European Union, says Capability in the civil service.

Major projects such as nuclear plant Hinkley Point C, railway High Speed 2 and nuclear weapons deterrent Trident renewal often draw on the same pool of skills, the NAO points out.

“For example, in rail projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink, we have seen skilled civil servants performing a number of project roles or being moved to fill skills gaps for new priorities or projects,” the report says.

Departments have told the NAO they are looking for more senior leaders with specialist expertise to achieve their objectives.

They have reported a need for about 2,000 additional staff in digital roles within the next five years. Although, those responsible for the government’s digital skills believe this is an underestimate.

The report suggests the government must prioritise projects – stopping work on those it does not think it can deliver – and assess what will be needed in terms of capacity to deliver each one.

Departments need to assess the capability requirements of their ongoing operations, the spending watchdog states, and look at where they can plug capability gaps from the private sector.

The PCS union said the government’s cuts programme was behind the drop off in capability. General secretary Mar Serwotka said: “The cut first, plan later approach demanded by austerity has damaged services and left the civil service unable to cope with current workloads, let alone the major upheaval caused by the vote to leave the EU.

“While the civil service is trying to deal with Brexit, there is no let-up in the demand and need for quality public services in our communities, which is why we have said all job cuts plans must be halted immediately.”

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