We are keen to support those responsible for both delivering and overseeing government programmes. In that spirit, we today publish our Framework to review programmes summarising what we ask when auditing major programmes. It draws from our experience of around 200 studies and includes examples of what we have seen.

Our work provides insights on the challenges in getting government programmes right. Programmes often encounter difficulties, take longer and cost more than planned, and don’t deliver the intended aims, with significant and high-profile consequences. Our unique remit means we can reflect on this across the lifecycle of different programmes, whether they aim to deliver long-term government ambitions (e.g. net zero); infrastructure (e.g. High Speed Two); or processes (e.g. offender rehabilitation).;

We repeatedly see similar problems, many of which have their root causes within the programme scope; cost and schedule planning; interdependencies; and oversight. In November, we published Lessons learned from Major Programmes which examined these root causes and what government can learn from them. This included ensuring the management approach evolves over time and the need to consider operational planning from the start. These lessons will relate, to a lesser or greater extent, to all programmes. For example, ambitious technology-enabled business change may mean digital programmes need to handle greater uncertainty, which we will report on later this year.

These lessons are not new. You will have heard them before and organisations like the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and Association for Project Management share similar insights. For example, the IPA’s Principles for project success outlines the need to plan realistically, tell it like it is and control the scope. However, given this consistency of thinking, why are things so hard to change? What can be done?

Although not necessarily the golden bullet, we see real value in those managing and overseeing programmes asking themselves the seemingly simple and straightforward questions, particularly early in a programme. Our framework shares 18 possible questions across four themes – purpose; value; set-up; and delivery and variation management.

In terms of purpose, you want to ask – Is it clear what objective the programme is intended to achieve? Does the programme make sense in relation to the organisation’s strategic priorities? 

HM Treasury guidance requires departments to establish a strategic case setting out how a programme will meet an underlying rationale and objectives. However, we often see bodies struggle to maintain a clear focus on a programme’s objectives. Government major programmes are likely to have multiple objectives, sometimes involving more than one department, and we have seen a lack of coherency and prioritisation. For example, in November 2020 we considered progress in Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals. Government’s plan bringing together commitments and aspirations did not provide a clear and coherent set of objectives so it was hard to determine how the ambitions related to pre-existing targets and each other.

A clear scope and objectives enable government to make trade-offs and better understand the impact of other projects and programmes. Our report on improving the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down found that the project could only fully deliver its strategic objectives as part of a completed A303/ A358 corridor. This required further projects, with five of these being individually appraised as low to poor value for money.

In terms of value, you may want to ask – Are cost and duration estimates appropriate to the stage of the programme, with risks and uncertainties appropriately reflected?

Does the programme have a plan to deliver benefits and is this being implemented? 

We have reported how the relative lack of information early in a programme means estimates will be highly uncertain. In many programmes we reviewed, governments have not sufficiently recognised these inherent uncertainties and risks. We have seen how using these estimates as targets can drive behaviours detrimental to successful delivery.

We highlighted this in our report on High Speed Two progress, whilst the framework references our early review of the risks faced by Parliament’s Restoration and Renewal. This recognised that uncertainties needed to be understood and recommended developing evidence based cost and time ranges with milestones setting out when estimates could be reassessed and the ranges narrowed. This drew from our survival guide which offers senior decision makers factors to consider when challenging costs.

Our set-up questions include – Does the programme have the right culture and leadership with the necessary authority and influence? Are key risks identified, understood and addressed? Whilst on delivery and variation management – Is the programme sufficiently flexible to deal with setbacks and changes in the operating context? Does the programme have a clear plan for transfer to operations/business as usual?

With COVID-19, EU Exit and net zero, government is undertaking more programmes. And as the complexity of these, and the overarching landscape increases, getting the basics right has never been more important. There have been notable improvements, and the government’s aim to set out requirements and best practice guidance is a good thing. Now is the time to reflect and learn from the past. Programme delays and increased costs have repercussions for the programme itself, other programmes and overall expenditure at a time when resources are constrained.