Reorganising central government

18 March 2010

Full report: Reorganising central government

Between May 2005 and June 2009, there were over 90 reorganisations to central government. But a report released today by the National Audit Office has found that these cannot demonstrate value for money, given that most had vague objectives and that costs and benefits were not tracked.

The average annual cost of reorganisations is almost £200 million, around 85 per cent of which is for the reorganisation of arms length bodies. Since 1980, 25 central government departments have been created, including 13 which no longer exist. By comparison, in the United States only two new departments have been created over the same period.

Central government bodies are weak at identifying and securing the benefits they hope to gain from reorganisation. There is no standard approach for preparing and assessing business cases setting out intended benefits against expected costs. By not identifying anticipated benefits clearly, public bodies run the risk of carrying out reorganisations unnecessarily. More than half of reorganisations do not compare expected costs and benefits of alternative options, so there can be no certainty that the chosen approaches are the most cost effective.

Furthermore, no departments set metrics to track the benefits that should justify reorganisation – making it impossible for them to demonstrate that the eventual benefits outweigh costs.

The ability of central government to identify reorganisation costs is poor. There is no requirement to set reorganisation budgets so no department and only a half of arms length bodies began implementation with a reorganisation budget in place. In addition, there is no requirement for bodies to disclose the costs of reorganisations after they happen – meaning the true cost of reorganisation is often hidden.

The decisions to reorganise departments and arms length bodies are often taken at short notice and with inadequate understanding of what could go wrong. This approach leaves management teams – particularly in departments where reorganisations often start on the day they are announced – planning and implementing reorganisation simultaneously. Only a quarter of arms length bodies had project plans in place before they announced reorganisations. Reorganisations of departments are generally announced before project plans are in place.

"With 90 reorganisations in four years, UK central government machinery is in a constant state of change. At approximately £200 million per annum, the costs are far from negligible and the reorganisations inevitably involve disruption and loss of service.   We believe a more deliberate and carefully planned process makes sense before such costs are incurred and would also like to see a slow down in the rate of change."

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 18 March 2010

Notes for Editors

  • 'Reorganisation’ means the allocation and reallocation of functions and responsibilities within and among central government departments and their arms length bodies. The reorganisations of the period covered by this report (May 2005 and June 2009) have varied greatly in scale and complexity, from transfers of business units through to complex mergers and the creation of new departments.
  • Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at http://www.nao.org.uk/. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Amyas Morse, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 900 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.
Contact: Phil Groves
PN: 17/10
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