The head of the National Audit Office will today (Thursday 8 December) outline lessons from its reports into the government’s handling of COVID-19 in a keynote speech at the Houses of Parliament.

Gareth Davies, Comptroller & Auditor General, will also offer guidance for decision-makers seeking public spending efficiencies against a tough economic backdrop.

Davies was appointed to the NAO in June 2019. Plans for an annual address at the end of his first year to share the key messages from the NAO’s work were overtaken by the audit work required on COVID-19. Today’s speech is therefore the first of a new yearly event where the Comptroller & Auditor General summarises the NAO’s latest findings drawing on its unique access to 400 audited accounts and 60 annual value for money reports spanning the breadth of public spending.

In today’s speech he will highlight basic standards, quality data and resilience as three of the biggest lessons learned during the pandemic. On resilience, the head of the NAO will address how government ensures the UK is resilient enough to withstand costly crises without taxpayers facing an unaffordable burden. The NAO will intensify its focus on resilience across government.

Finally, Davies will also outline what the NAO’s work says about how government can improve results for the public by wisely choosing where it spends its money and using resources efficiently in the process.

Introducing his speech, Gareth Davies, Comptroller & Auditor General, will say:

“The NAO has reported in detail on many elements of the government’s pandemic response. As other issues begin to dominate, it is crucial we don’t forget and instead reflect on what we have learned from the pandemic.

“We looked at the direct health response, the wider emergency response and measures to protect businesses and individuals from the economic impact.

“From this body of work, I draw three big lessons for public spending in large scale emergencies:

“Firstly, the importance of maintaining basic standards even in an emergency, and restoring normal controls as soon as possible. Secondly, the central role of good quality data in responding quickly and targeting resources accurately. And thirdly, the need for a new approach to improving the country’s resilience to high impact emergencies, minimising the impact on current and future taxpayers.”

On basic standards, Gareth Davies, Comptroller & Auditor General, will say:

“Everyone accepts that at the height of the emergency, some normal processes and checks needed to be adapted to save lives and protect livelihoods.

“There simply wasn’t time to use lengthy tender processes to buy PPE, or apply the full panoply of checks on potential borrowers for bounce-back loans. When accepting high-risk compromises, government had a responsibility to apply mitigating controls that were available, including better transparency to Parliament and the public, rigorous management of conflicts of interest, reducing vulnerability to fraud and timely accounting.”

“Maintaining these basic standards is critical to preventing financial losses, and public trust in the government’s emergency responses.”

On better use of data, Gareth Davies, Comptroller & Auditor General, will say:

“Good quality data was a leading factor in determining the value for money of the different government interventions.

“Universal Credit’s access to real time income data proved responsive to the surge in demand during the first months of the pandemic. And the furlough scheme was better targeted than the self-employed income support scheme because HMRC had more up-to-date income data for people who worked for organisations than those who worked for themselves.

“Having data is one thing, but you also need to be able to share, collate, and make it usable.

“Later in the pandemic the system for calling and booking people for their COVID-19 vaccinations was built rapidly, making good use of available patient data, and proved reliable and effective. Tellingly, widespread use of the NHS app for recording vaccination status has now translated into patients being more willing to engage digitally with the NHS.

“We’ve all benefited from improved use of data in the commercial world, but government’s progress over the last 25 years in this space has been too slow.

“Three key issues to address are:

  • Data standards: essential for efficient use of data, held in a consistent way
  • Data quality: for accurate and reliable results and maintaining public confidence
  • Data sharing: so citizens don’t need to repeat themselves

“Getting this right can unlock big efficiency gains.”

On resilience, Gareth Davies, Comptroller & Auditor General, will say:

“Perhaps the ultimate challenge to our resilience is posed by climate change. How is government ensuring our country is resilient enough to withstand costly crises, without placing an unaffordable burden on taxpayers?

“The pandemic exposed the UK’s vulnerability to whole-system emergencies. The current energy crisis tells us resilience to systemic risks goes well beyond pandemics.

“For example, expected changes in rainfall in the coming decades will severely stress our water resources. The NAO’s work on the regulatory response to this found a failure by industry to reduce leakage, and no convincing plans to stop the south and east of England running out of water by 2040.

“The experience of the last few years should be enough to demonstrate that we need a more realistic assessment of risk – both the likelihood and the impact of adverse events. Everyone involved, and I’d include the NAO in that, underestimated both likelihood and impact in the cases of the pandemic, and the current crisis in energy costs.

“The NAO is now developing a more systematic approach to auditing resilience, and examining how effectively the country is being protected from catastrophic events, and taxpayers from unaffordable bills. We will publish the first in this new series of audits next year.

“To be truly resilient, government must plan for scenarios it previously dismissed as extreme, and revisit existing assessments. This is crucial to achieve value for money not just in the short term but for future generations.”

On guidance to decision-makers for achieving efficiency, Gareth Davies, Comptroller & Auditor General, will say:

“So turning to the here and now, the pandemic has left us with a litany of pressing issues to deal with – risky government-backed loans, backlogs, over-stretched local services.

“Combine this with the myriad ongoing challenges such as the invasion of Ukraine, the cost of living, post-Brexit trade arrangements, the energy crisis and global warming, and the situation facing government is incredibly difficult.

“With public finances constrained, the government must extract value from every public pound as possible. That requires choosing well and delivering well.

“It needs to both to do the right things, and do things right. Policy choices are a matter for the government. So what does our work offer to those who must make those allocative choices? In short, evaluation.

“Despite government’s commitment to evidence-based decision-making, much of what it does is either not evaluated robustly or not evaluated at all. Government has recently committed to improve its use of evaluations, in spending decisions. However, without a fundamental change in behaviour and mindset there is a risk these efforts will make little difference.

“It’s easy to see why government does not always prioritise evaluation. Results can take a long time to come through, and nobody relishes being associated with a programme shown to be ineffective. But we won’t embed better value for taxpayers if we don’t pay attention to what government spending is achieving.”

On improving operational efficiency, Gareth Davies, Comptroller & Auditor General, will say:

“If government can improve how it provides services, then there is significant potential for both financial savings and better services.

“Understanding and managing demand is key so resources can be allocated efficiently.

“Investment in digital services is another cornerstone. Yet government is not a greenfield site where brand new systems can be created at will. New ways of doing business and services need to fit into a government landscape still dominated by legacy systems and data.

“We have seen the impact this can have on citizens. A significant number of people, mainly women, were underpaid their state pension. One of the causes was a reliance on outdated systems. Digital leaders bring experience and understand challenges well. But they often struggle to get the attention, understanding and support they need from other senior decision-makers.

“Our work demonstrates the need for a renewed focus on the nuts and bolts of efficient and effective delivery. Too many high-level ambitions fail to be translated into concrete plans, adequately resourced and tightly managed.

“The skills and organisational discipline required for this are well understood, and demonstrated in the vaccine development and rollout, but not always sufficiently valued and prioritised in government. From affordable housing to safe air quality, many delivery challenges require effective working across departmental and sector boundaries.”

Notes for editors

Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

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