Background to the guide

Uncertainties have the potential to have major consequences for a project, programme, portfolio or policy intervention (collectively referred to in this guide as ‘programmes’) meeting its objectives.

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Dealing with uncertainties is an inherent part of delivering the sorts of complex, long-term and innovative programmes for which government is responsible. Decision-makers still need to make value for money decisions in this uncertain context.

We have found that, in planning and delivering programmes, decision-makers and teams do not always take time to understand and consider wider uncertainties or can underestimate their impact.

As a result, options and plans may not sufficiently take account of the underlying uncertainties, providing a false sense of certainty or making plans insufficiently resilient to change. In these cases, it is less likely that the programme will deliver its intended objectives or be able to respond to opportunities and, ultimately, public trust in government’s ability to deliver programmes is more likely to be eroded.

To secure the benefits of innovative approaches and to address complex challenges, government needs to be more comfortable working with uncertainty.

Scope of the guide

This guide is aimed at decision-makers who need to make value for money decisions in the face of uncertainty that is hard to anticipate or mitigate.

This guide aims to help you to work with uncertainty. It covers:

  • identifying uncertainty
  • analysing uncertainty
  • planning for uncertainty

It is based on NAO insights from reports across a wide range of government programmes, as well as government guidance relating to risk and uncertainty.