More muscle, more money needed for Whitehall's bulwark against failing IT projects
The Major Projects Authority, set up to put an end to the UK public sector's history of IT schemes running over budget and behind schedule, needs beefing up, according to parliament's spending watchdog.
The agency set up to stop public sector projects coming off the rails, established in the wake of a number of high-profile IT failures, needs more cash and more muscle, parliament's spending watchdog reckons.
The Major Projects Authority (MPA) was set up in 2011 to oversee large-scale government projects and intervene if the schemes are running into difficulties — and now manages 200 projects worth £376bn. Among the IT projects to come under its scrutiny were the National Programme for IT, the decade-long £12.7bn overhaul of NHS IT, and contracts relating to the Home Office's e-Borders scheme.
The MPA needs greater powers to keep government departments in line — and potentially more funding too — if it's to successfully fulfil its remit of keeping big projects on track, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) believes.
The MPA "has much more work but far fewer resources than the part of the Office of Government Commerce it replaced... With a budget of £6m and a 40-percent cut in staffing there are inevitably questions over whether it can achieve the improvements intended", the PAC said in report published on Tuesday.
With a limited budget and resources, the MPA can only tackle the biggest and riskiest projects, meaning that smaller schemes will receive little attention, according to the report. The MPA "prioritised its workload based on those projects which were considered to be high risk, high value, and with the potential for high reputational damage if they go wrong... [The MPA recognised] there was a danger that it could miss problems which might arise in smaller projects," the PAC said.
As a result, the watchdog advised taking another looking at bolstering the MPA's coffers. "The Authority and HM Treasury should quantify the return on investment from the Authority's work to identify whether further investment would benefit the taxpayer," the report's authors said.
The PAC also warned that the government should give the agency more muscle to help prevent more project failures.
"The authority does not have the power to stop or reset projects which are going off track and too many projects continue for too long before action is taken," it said.
"The authority’s reviews should clearly set out whether the project should continue, be stopped or reset, and HM Treasury should ensure the recommendation is adhered to," the report added.
"With a sharply cut workforce and a budget of just £6m a year to oversee over 200 projects with a value of £376bn, the agency cannot achieve what it was set up to do" — Margaret Hodge MP
The PAC highlighted that not all government departments are following the arrangements supported out by the MPA to ensure large projects go according to plan. Departments should make sure that sticking to the arrangements is part of the responsibilities of those running the project, the PAC said.
According to the MPA's own stats, only one-third of big public-sector projects are delivered on time and on budget.
Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the PAC, said that the committee "has long been concerned that government too often turns a blind eye to warning signs of impending failure of its major projects".
"With a sharply cut workforce and a budget of just £6m a year to oversee over 200 projects with a value of £376bn, the agency cannot achieve what it was set up to do. It has to focus on only the biggest and most risky projects. Even then, it has to rely on the individual departments to play their part. Over a third of departments have been slow to adopt a new assurance system," she added.