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Government must better guide and support Whitehall to reset failing projects

15 September 2023

  • PAC report finds new risks created by resetting programmes not always effectively managed
  • Lack of transparent and honest culture in projects creates obstacles to necessary resets of major schemes

The resetting of failing major programmes by Whitehall is made more difficult by a lack of guidance and structure from Government. In a wide-ranging report published today on the issue of resetting Government programmes, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) finds that there is no specific guidance for departments on how to reset complex multi-billion pound schemes. The Government must get better at learning from and recognising the value of resets, which vary from fundamental changes to significant revisions of cost and time estimates.

When successfully carried out, resets help projects get back on track – but the new risks that resets can create are not always effectively managed. The lack of a definition for what constitutes a reset also causes confusion, and can hinder lesson-learning. For example, the number of resets to date of the Ajax armoured vehicle programme remains unclear, but is at least two and probably three. The Ministry of Defence’s failure to recognise the new risks and opportunities created by resetting (such as changes to commercial relationships) then necessitated a further reset.

In some projects, the lack of a transparent and honest culture results in resets happening later than needed. For example, the PAC found evidence of a culture where there was insufficient candour in the Crossrail programme, meaning it started to believe its own ‘on-time, on-budget’ mantra, and stopping many people raising issues. Not having the right environment to encourage diverse views has also created problems identifying and managing resets, with more progress to be made in improving diversity in both central Government and the programme profession.

Government departments do not always have the specific skills needed to undertake a reset, including not always having the right leadership. The PAC has previously commented on programmes’ leadership moving on too quickly. The report finds that while the situation is improving, there are challenges in encouraging senior leaders to stay in their roles, given a lack of civil service pay incentives. The PAC calls on Cabinet Office and HM Treasury to work with departments to ensure they use any available levers where it is best to incentivise continuity of leadership. 

Chair's comments

Public Accounts Committee Chair, Dame Meg Hillier MP, said:

“It can be hard to admit for any high-stakes endeavour when it is time to change direction. This is especially so for officials in the glare of publicity at the helm of innovative and risky projects with budgets of many billions, under pressure for delivery both from politicians and the public’s understandable expectations for improvements. If the Government does not provide senior leaders in Whitehall with the necessary support, clear-eyed and hard decisions will not be made when required.

No one wants to see such high-cost projects designed to benefit the public fail, so a robust culture of openness and honesty with diverse points of view must be present to successfully course-correct a progamme which looks at risk. Our report finds a range of ways resets can go wrong – they can be rushed, avoided until too late, even create new problems. There are invaluable lessons to be found for the future in how to strike the right balance.”

Further information

Image: Parliamentary copyright