Posted on July 7, 2017 by Lee Summerfield
MPs have queried the way grants are distributed; multiple programme changes have left many questioning aims and effectiveness; growing backlogs have raised issues about public service delivery; and failed contracts losing millions of pounds have implied serious mismanagement. Concerns raised by MPs, members of the public and our own staff as a result of their work often need the facts set out – clearly and quickly. They call for an NAO ‘Investigation’.
Beyond our financial audits, the NAO is best known for our value for money (VFM) studies. But these can take many months to conduct and there are times that those with concerns, especially MPs and Select Committees, either require a more rapid answer or just need the facts set out clearly. That’s why we are increasingly conducting ‘Investigations’. These studies are:
- Limited to setting out facts – they leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
- Responsive – looking into concerns raised with us or that we have identified through our work.
- Shorter and faster than our VFM reports.
Some concerns are raised with us that, once looked into, don’t merit a study. Some Investigations look into specific failures. Some set out facts about complex situations or where there is a risk of failure or mismanagement, enabling organisations to make informed decisions.
Indeed, looking at our Investigations over the last few years provides a very interesting window into the NAO’s range of work and the way we both help Parliament to hold the government to account, and drive public service improvement. All studies can be found through our Investigations web-page, but I highlight here some that have particularly led to lessons being learnt and issues highlighted.
Providing clarity and guidance
Managing conflicts of interest in NHS clinical commissioning groups looked into the risk of conflicts of interest in the new system for NHS commissioning. We don’t normally draw conclusions or make recommendations in our Investigations – just set out our findings. However, as this one focused on a risk recognised by the Department of Health, we made ‘overall observations’ about what was needed to promote public confidence that conflicts were being managed well.
This NHS Investigation, and The Department for Education’s management of a potential conflict of interest, used the good practice principles we set out in Conflicts of Interest, which provides an overview of conflicts of interest, including the risks and how and why they occur.
Similarly, there have been links between Investigations, for example Investigation into misuse of the Flexible Support Fund in Plaistow, and our work on whistleblowing, summarised in our blog-post Whistleblowing good practice.
Investigation into Police and Firefighters’ Pension Scheme Commutation factors is a good example of a report clarifying a complex situation. It sets out the facts after a long legal case, and the government’s payment of £711m in compensation to 34,000 pensioners who retired between 2001 and 2006 without receiving their full pension entitlement.
Investigation into the Department for International Development’s approach to tackling fraud was prompted by the increase in the international aid budget and the programme’s greater focus on countries deemed to be fragile, and it looked into the concern that fraud in overseas aid was being under-reported. It found some examples of good practice of fraud management – now the subject of our post Lessons in fraud prevention, detection and recovery.
Lessons from Investigations
Lessons can be certainly be learnt from our Investigations, which is why they have featured in a number of our previous blog-posts.
Forecasting for ‘Saints’ looks at lessons about forecasting in Realising the benefits of the St Helena Airport Project.
To share or not to share: that is the question references lessons to be learnt from our Investigation into civil service pension administration.
Contracting: A minimal open book approach summarises our Investigation into the UKTI specialist services contract with PA consulting, a contract that was cancelled following a commercial dispute over pricing, and Investigation into the collapse of the UnitingCare Partnership contract in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, an NHS contract terminated after eight months when it ran into financial difficulties.
These two Investigations are among several focusing on issues in contract management. Our findings from such studies have contributed to our series of ‘good practice’ publications, discussed in our contract management blog-posts and available on our commercial capability and contract management web-page, including Commercial and contract management – insights and emerging best practice.
Several Investigations have focused on programme or service implementation, generally because a problem has arisen. Issues include:
- Multiple changes to a programme – e.g. Investigation into the South East Flexible Ticketing Programme.
- Backlogs in service provision – e.g. Investigation into the Parole Board and Child Maintenance: closing cases and managing arrears on the 1993 and 2003 schemes.
- Programmes not achieving their aims – e.g. Investigation into the Department of Energy & Climate Change’s loans to the Green Deal Finance Company and Investigation into Just Solutions International.
As with contract management, lessons from such cases contribute to our good practice guides and frameworks, including our forthcoming ‘Framework to review programmes’.
Holding government to account for spending and services
One of the NAO’s most high profile Investigations was The government’s funding of Kids Company. We found that on at least six occasions between 2002 and 2015 officials had raised concerns about the finances of the children’s charity, Kids Company. Yet the charity continued to receive public funding – totalling at least £46 million.
This Investigation shed light on cases of ministers making funding decisions despite official recommendations to the contrary, particularly as the final £3 million grant was made on the basis of a ‘Ministerial directive’. As explained in our blog-post, Spending your money wisely, a permanent secretary should request a letter of direction if a minister decides to continue with a course of action s/he has advised against. Our Kids Company Investigation was one of the studies that contributed to our report on Accountability to Parliament for taxpayers’ money, which called on permanent secretaries to stand up to ministers and challenge policy proposals that don’t use public resources wisely. But, as our Investigation: The Department for Transport’s funding of the Garden Bridge shows, this is an on-going issue.
About the author: Lee Summerfield is the NAO Director responsible for Investigations and has over 17 years’ experience in leading NAO value for money studies. Before taking over as Lead Director on Investigations, Lee was responsible for the Ministry of Defence value-for-money studies.
Leave a Comment