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To obtain value for money from public spending, lessons must be learnt from both success and failure. Although there is some effective learning within departments, learning is still not as prioritised as much as it should be, according to a National Audit Office report released today.

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Much learning in government occurs after large projects, initiatives or crises, but important learning should also take place routinely on a day-to-day basis, as teams and individuals carry out their work, or as a result of research and evaluations. Feedback from outside the organisation, particularly from service users, is also vital for improving service delivery.

In order to learn successfully, many organisations within the public sector need to change how they approach their work. The main barriers to learning within departments are ineffective tools to capture and share learning, keeping insights and information within the team rather than sharing them across the organisation, high turnover within the workforce leading to a loss of knowledge, and a lack of time given to capturing lessons from experience.

Departments should give higher priority to learning within their organisations. There are too few incentives to encourage staff within departments to devote more time to learning from their work. Staff should be encouraged to consider in detail why projects went well or not and to offer new ideas, with reflection and evaluation of projects put on a more, systematic footing. More departments need to build learning into their staff appraisal and reward schemes. Nearly half do not have learning as a part of their competency framework for senior staff.

Departments appreciate much of the support and guidance they receive from the centre of government including both the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, but they are often confused about which units and organisations they should approach for guidance. The proliferation of toolkits, guidance and other products risk ‘guidance overload’. Guidance needs to be focused on what departments find useful. Efforts should also be made to build on cross-government networks, which are highly rated for supporting learning.

"We know from our audit work that projects and programmes are more likely to succeed and keep to time and budget where lessons have been learned and experience shared. Departments need to take learning more seriously, and encourage their staff to give it a higher priority through better recognition in reward and appraisal structures. Getting better at learning from the past will help government secure better value for money in the future."

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office


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