Government efficiency programmes have little evidence of effecting long-term change, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.
The NAO’s comments come as the watchdog released a report that branded the NHS National Programme for IT a failure, and said there was no chance of delivering value for money from its budgeted cost of £11.4 billion,.
Keith Davis, director of cross-government at the NAO, told the Westminster eForum seminar in London that despite some efficiency projects displaying evidence of progress in the last complete spending report, CSR07 – for example police forces using technology such as BlackBerry smartphones to reduce paperwork – overall projects had little long-term thinking behind them. Moreover, there were few incentives to encourage long-term decision-making.
“There were only in-year savings, so it wasn’t really clear how the incentives work in a three-year period,” said Davis, adding that there was a lack of innovation in the efficiency plans.
“Most savings were a continuation of what was being done before.”
Another problem with the programmes was that they were led from the top down, rather than by operational leaders, Davis said, a point that was echoed by BT’s client partner of government and health, Mark Langdale, at the seminar.
“Much of the savings were conceived by senior management. We think operational staff have a better idea of operating efficiencies. They should be brought forward,” said Davis.
Meanwhile, in many cases, the NAO was not able to verify a “significant proportion” of the savings that government departments claimed to make.
A lack of information from arms-length bodies, inaccurate baseline figures and issues with relating savings to performance were cited as reasons for this, as well generally poor data systems.
“It was very rare to see unit cost data,” said Davis.
A number of issues need to be addressed in future efficiency programmes, the NAO believes.
Davis said that rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to efficiency, the government needs to understand the barriers to change of each department.
Furthermore, the government also needs to be aware of issues around accountability. For example, this would apply if the government has one department procuring on behalf of a number of others, that is, leveraging its large buying power by centralising procurement as recommended in the Philip Green review.