Headlines: January 28th, 2004

A report today is highlighting five critical issues to which government departments must pay careful attention if the extra 61 billion pounds to be spent on improving public services over the next three years is to have its full impact. The report from the head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn, says it is too early to tell whether the increased funding will deliver all the planned improvements.The report looks at the preparations made by the sections getting the three largest increases – the Departments for Education and Skills, Health and Transport – to use their extra resources. This study will provide a baseline for future NAO reports assessing the actual improvements that are achieved, as the additional funding begins to take effect.

Sir John says many of the issues being highlighted apply to departments more generally and as a result the report sets out five generic risks facing many officials in Whitehall in their use of resources.

The first is the complexity of the delivery chain. With departments’ intentions often being filtered through several different organisations. The report gives the example of the rail sector, where the Strategic Rail Authority, the Office of the Rail Regulator, Network Rail and the train operating companies all have a role to play in improving rail travel. It says complex delivery chains increase the risk that key aims are diluted, misunderstood or not given consistent priority.

Next the report lists capacity of delivery organisations and says essential work to strengthen capacity is underway. For example, it says, the Department for Education and Skills has training in place to increase the programme and project management skills of over 1,000 members of staff.

On targeting resources, the report says this must be done in a way that reaches services most in need of improvement and which focus on benefiting citizens. Turning to risk management the NAO calls on departments to focus clearly on ensuring that each organisation involved in service delivery is resilient. Departments have made progress in identifying risks but more needs to be done.

Finally the report highlights the need to monitor and evaluate performance. It says credible evaluation of performance, supported by reliable and transparent information, is important so that poor quality service is quickly identified and remedied. But a balance is needed to ensure the process is not an unnecessary bureaucracy.

Sir John Bourn says the unprecedented increase in public spending equates to a thousand pounds for every person in the UK, and the report gives the opportunity to set out the fundamental issues that all departments need to address to deliver improved public services.