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Executive Agencies can improve how they set targets and do more to ensure that their initiatives are leading to better delivery of services, Sir John Bourn, the Head of the National Audit Office reported today. He presented to Parliament four reports which assess how agencies are seeking to improve public services.

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Executive Agencies need to have sufficiently exacting targets. Most commonly, these have been set by reference to past performance, but targets should also reflect changes in public expectations, and opportunities for increased efficiency, such as those offered by new technologies and innovative ways of working. Targets should also reflect issues that are important for users, and there needs to be a wider range of methods to gauge what users really need and think.

The NAO found that almost three quarters of the targets we reviewed in 2001-02 were achieved. But they need to give more attention to the consistent measurement and reporting of performance over time and publish reliable information on performance achievement to ensure accountability for public money.

Agencies use a range of initiatives to evaluate and improve service delivery including seeking accreditation against external quality standards. When assessing such initiatives, agencies should explicitly take into account their likely impact on users and focus on aspects that deliver most benefit to users.

While agencies generally have systems in place for identifying and monitoring costs, these are not often linked to key outputs and outcomes. The pursuit of improved service delivery must be balanced by the need to provide value for money and agencies need to adopt more sophisticated approaches to measuring costs and productivity.

Three of the reports on service delivery examine individual bodies: the Veterans Agency, the Forensic Science Service and the Food Standards Agency – a rather different type of arm’s length organisation being a Non Ministerial Department, created in 2000. All have made progress in improving aspects of their performance.

The Veterans Agency has reduced the average length of time it takes to process claims and achieves high levels of customer satisfaction.

The Agency needs to identify ways of reducing processing times further for some types of claim and appeals where claimants may wait long periods for a decision.

Most users of the Forensic Science Service rate its services highly, but concerns remain about the time it takes to complete forensic science casework. The average time to complete forensic testing reduced from 45 days in 1991-92 to 26 days in 1999-00 but increased again to 35 days in 2001-02, significantly above the national target of 24 days. Performance also varies between the Agency’s different laboratories.

Overall the Food Standards Agency has made progress towards meeting its objective to improve public confidence in food safety and standards arrangements. It can further improve by bringing greater transparency to the way in which it reaches judgements about where to concentrate its efforts and determine priorities; having better information to enable matching of resources to its workload; and adopting a more systematic approach to assessing its impact on food safety and standards.

"These reports get to the heart of one of the Government’s key objectives: improving the delivery of public services. We have found many examples of good practice in the organisations we have examined in detail. We have brought these together into one report so that agencies can learn from the success of others."

Sir John Bourn


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