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Managing Risks to Improve Public Services

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported to Parliament today that good progress has been made by departments to improve their risk management capacity since his previous report in August 2000, although departments have further to go to demonstrate that they have made effective risk management a central part of their day to day management processes.

Effective risk management can help departments avoid failures in service delivery. Well managed risk taking also presents opportunities to deliver better public services, make more reliable decisions, improve efficiency and support innovation. The announcement in the Governments July 2004 Spending Review of its intention to achieve savings of 21.5 billion a year, staff reductions of 84,000 in support functions by 2008 and sales of 30 billion of assets by 2010 makes effective risk management even more critical. If these targets are to be successfully met whilst also achieving Public Service Agreement targets risks will need to be successfully managed.

In November 2002 a two year Risk Programme was launched by the Prime Minister and led by the Treasury to give focus and drive to departments in the development of plans and frameworks designed to make effective risk management a reality. The Risk Programme comes to an end in December 2004 and the NAO has identified that it is critical for departments to build on the momentum achieved to date.

The NAO report is based on a survey of the 20 main Whitehall departments, focus groups of 27 departmental risk managers, comparisons with private sector organisations, academic research, and case studies of five departments. The NAO found that departments have made good progress in embedding risk management, providing staff with greater access to training and guidance on risk management, and building a common understanding of risks they face. Progress has been made particularly in defining risk objectives, having processes to report changes in risks and in regarding risk as an opportunity as well as a threat.

There are a number of areas where more needs to be done. Only one quarter of the departments surveyed by the NAO were confident that they have established an overall view about their exposure to risk. The management of working relationships with partner organisations needs to be strengthened, particularly where there are complex delivery networks or where clarity is lacking about which delivery organisation is responsible for different risks. More progress is needed to embed risk management in the day to day activities of departments, particularly by making sure that there is a sufficient critical mass of staff with well developed skills and expertise to manage risk effectively.

The report identifies five key aspects of risk management which, if more widely applied, could contribute to better public services and increased efficiency:

  • Sufficient time, resource, and top level commitment needs to be devoted to handling risks;
  • Responsibility and accountability for risks need to be clear and subject to scrutiny and robust challenge;
  • Judgements about risks need to be based on reliable, timely and up to date information;
  • Risk management needs to be applied throughout departments delivery networks;
  • Departments need to continue to develop their understanding of the common risks they share and work together to manage them.

"Today's public service delivery environment constantly presents new risks to the provision of public services, and robust risk management can help departments respond effectively. Just as importantly it opens up opportunities to develop innovative policies and delivery mechanisms. Well managed risk taking is to be encouraged and I am pleased with the progress I have seen since my last report in 2000. That being said, I have identified a number of ways in which departments can make further progress in developing cultures that place active, explicit and systematic risk management at the heart of their business so that decisions are routinely based around accurate and well informed judgements about risk. It is critical that departments continue to build on the momentum achieved so far in developing their risk management, particularly in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the recent Spending Review."

Sir John Bourn

Notes for Editors

  1. The five case studies in the report cover the activities of the Department of Trade and Industrys Coal Liabilities Unit, HM Customs and Excises Law Enforcement Directorate, the Department for Culture Media and Sports "Culture Online," National Savings and Investments, and the Office for National Statistics.
  2. Sir John Bourn first reported on this topic in his report Supporting Innovation: Managing Risk in government departments, NAO, 1999-2000 (HC 864). The Committee of Public Accounts also reported in its First Report, 2001-02, Managing Risk in Government Departments (HC 336).
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website,
    which is now at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office
    on 0845 702 3474.
  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 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.



PN: 61/04