Given the wide-reaching impact of membership of the EU, preparing for the UK’s departure from the EU represented a significant challenge to government, with considerable potential consequences for businesses and citizens.
Our programme of work on EU Exit
Over the last four years, the NAO has carried out a substantial programme of work on various aspects of government’s EU Exit preparations. We have published 28 reports so far, which have provided a detailed picture of significant EU Exit projects and programmes in real time, looking from planning into implementation stages. Using these reports, we compared different approaches taken by departments and considered the common barriers or enablers for achieving outcomes. We also returned to the same issues over time – for example, in our suite of reports on the border – to provide a point-in-time assessment of progress and risks, and to understand how and why things had changed.
Our work highlighted the large amount of new activity departments were undertaking. This included developing understanding in new areas such as the Department for Health and Social Care’s work on supply chains; getting involved in new markets such as the Department for Transport’s procurement of freight capacity; or setting up new structures such as the cross-government Border Delivery Group. We recognised that new ways of working were necessary for government to meet the challenges it faced, and risks could be better managed if actively considered and planned for.
Insights from government’s EU Exit preparations
Our latest report Learning for government from EU Exit preparations brings together our insights from how government has tackled the challenge of preparing for EU Exit to date. We draw on our reports to highlight areas of good practice, such as the initial work the Department for Exiting the European Union asked departments to do to identify all the areas where EU Exit would have an impact. This provided a solid basis for assessing the scale of the challenge across government as a whole and across individual departments, and for identifying where an issue required a coordinated response across government. We also highlight areas where government’s approach could have been improved, such as in the slow move from policy to addressing implementation challenges, and the lack of timely and clear communication from the centre to departments.
We saw that government had taken action to understand what was not working and to take steps to improve. The insights we set out are intended to help government identify and implement improvements on existing work at a faster pace.
These fall into four broad areas that encompass important aspects of any government programme.
- Plan for all possible scenarios, with robust contingency plans.
- Identify the scale, nature and complexity of the task at the outset.
- Recognise the opportunities and increased risks from working at speed or in new ways.
- Develop clear structures for oversight and decision-making.
- Draw on expertise in implementation early on, to expose delivery risks.
- Develop effective structures to facilitate cross-government working.
- Establish a culture of clear and timely communication across departments.
- Engage early with key stakeholders, and understand their role in delivering the outcome.
- Encourage strong financial management, for informed decision-making and accountability.
Why our insights are important now
While at the time EU Exit was a challenge with little historical precedent, the insights we have gathered continue to have relevance. Preparations for the end of the transition period in December 2020 are ongoing (we will be reporting on these in the near future), and the impact of the UK’s Exit from the EU will continue to be felt on the work of government as it plans the future policy direction of areas such as immigration, agriculture, consumer protection and the environment.
Government is now also responding to the demands of a global pandemic which similarly requires a fast-paced response, innovative policy solutions, coordinated action across government and effective, external transparency and communication. And, as we highlighted in our five-year strategy, there are significant challenges for government ahead such as the transition to a net zero carbon economy, how demographic changes will continue to drive higher demand for public services, and how technological innovation will continue to reshape whole industries and public service delivery.
Back in 2017, we raised the need for government to prioritise what it could manage from its existing business-as-usual work alongside the demands of EU Exit. The government of today is no less busy, and the Civil Service itself is undergoing reform, with a new Cabinet Secretary and a new Chief Operating Officer at the helm. It is more important than ever that government learns from its recent experiences to ensure that it is as well-placed as it can be to manage the scale and complexity of the many challenges it faces.
Authors: Leena Mathew and Sarah Pearcey
Leena has responsibility for the NAO’s work on EU Exit and the border, and Sarah has led many EU Exit reports. They both worked on the NAO’s report on the learning government can draw from its EU Exit preparations.