Cross-government and public administration

NAO Guide: Initiating successful projects

In this guide we highlight National Audit Office reports which illustrate the different approaches departments take to initiating projects. We show how they develop a realistic understanding of the risks, benefits and deliverability of projects.

In the last three years the National Audit Office has examined some 40 major government projects, a number comparable to previous years. One clear lesson we have learned from the evidence base which our back catalogue provides is that the quality of project initiation is highly predictive of project success. We are therefore re-focusing our studies earlier in the project lifecycle to better assess the quality of, and to influence successful, project initiation. We will follow these early interventions with results based studies as the project rolls out. In preparing this Guide, and undertaking our evaluation work, we find it helpful to focus on a few key elements which, in our experience, have affected project delivery. These are:

Purpose – having clarity on the overall priorities and desired outcomes;

Affordability – understanding what delivery will cost and not being over-optimistic;

Pre-commitment – having robust internal assessment and challenge to establish if the project is feasible;

Project set-up – the detailed specification, procurement, contract and incentive design; and

Delivery and variation management – maintaining delivery pressure throughout the life of the contract and flexibility to recover the integrity of the project in light of unanticipated events or significant variations from the original plan.

December 2011