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Government departments have improved the quality of the data systems used to report progress against their Public Service Agreements. But a report out today by the National Audit Office found that although half of the data systems needed no further work, over a third, though broadly appropriate, needed strengthening and some 15 per cent were not fit for purpose or not fully established.

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Today’s report looked at the quality of the data systems used by departments to measure progress against their 2005 – 2008 Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets. PSAs were first introduced in 1998 to improve the accountability of Government spending. Today’s findings give an overall picture of the quality of data systems supporting all 2005-2008 PSAs.

After reviewing 237 data systems operated by 17 departments, the NAO found that 50 per cent were fit for purpose. Some 35 per cent were broadly appropriate but needed strengthening and eight per cent were not fit for purpose. For six per cent it was too early to tell and one per cent of data systems had not been established at all.

Although departments have improved the quality of their data systems over time, they have been less successful at transferring the learning to the development of new data systems. The report found that improvements had been made in 46 per cent of the data systems which had been used to monitor progress against previous targets, but departments had found it less easy to implement good practice when establishing data systems for the first time.

The report concludes that the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 has introduced a number of changes to the PSA framework, aimed at strengthening the framework of accountability. These changes will address a number of the recommendations that we have made about data systems.

The NAO has recommended that departments should explicitly consider measurement issues when setting new PSAs, specifically that all the elements of performance that they are targeting are defined and measurable. They should also evaluate existing data sources to assess their suitability for PSA monitoring purposes. Reports to management boards should disclose limitations to data quality and departments should introduce a management function to challenge and approve data quality.

“Good quality data are essential if performance measures and targets are to be used effectively to improve public sector delivery and accountability. It is good news that data systems are improving, but departments must transfer these lessons to their new data systems. If we are to have confidence in the performance reported by government, all systems used to monitor it must be robust.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office


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