Why do public sector programmes fail?

Published on Friday, 19 September 2014 14:41
Written by Josie Cluer

Another week, another high profile public sector project in the news for failing to deliver.

From universal credit to the e-borders programme, we are used to hearing about large government programmes which were delayed, spent too much money - especially on IT - and have led to real human suffering.

Cue the media and the public accounts committee attacking the civil service and ministers for wasting taxpayers' money. Next will follow another round of books documenting the "blunders" of government or professing to "peel back the covers" on government programmes.

And of course, commentators will offer their advice to Whitehall: improve project management skills, improve commercial negotiation, and improve transparency of reporting so we don't throw good money after bad.

It's not clear that public sector programmes are any more prone to failure than those in other sectors; private sector programmes fail too.

Government programmes are funded by taxpayers' money, and therefore rightly face scrutiny from ministers, parliament, select committees, the media, and through them, the public. Therefore we hear about public sector failures more often. With an increase in shareholder activism, perhaps we may hear more about corporate failures in future.

Nor it is clear whether UK public sector programmes are more likely to fail than their counterparts across the world. Transformation is hard wherever it is attempted.

Irrespective of their relative success rates, public sector programmes face unique challenges which are often overlooked. I believe if we understood these factors a little better, we would be better placed to improve our success.

First, there is enormous aspiration in large-scale public sector projects. NHS IT sought to digitise and automate patient records for every single person in the country, and integrate IT systems across thousands of hospitals, GP surgeries and specialist centres. It's hard to think of a more ambitious goal.

Many public sector programmes are similarly first in class and without parallel, either in the UK or abroad. I remember working on a high profile government programme and doing some research on precedents from overseas. A senior official in the Australian government told me "no, no one has implemented reforms like those. We're all waiting to see how it turns out in the UK".

Second, many public sector programmes require universality: everyone needs to be served.

A phone company can ignore the small segment of the market which isn't able to deal with touchtone phones or the internet. The Department for Work and Pensions cannot. So government has to go the extra mile to meet the needs of the last few customers.

Third, public sector reform operates in the context of politics, whose pressures are not always conducive to long term, disciplined programme management. The incentives to make big announcements when they suit the narrative rather than the programme are strong.

Key strategic decisions can be forced into illogical compromises by a parliamentary vote, pressure from lobby groups, or even a change of government. ID cards is a good example of the government changing tack on the most fundamental of questions: what are they for?

But just because government delivery is hard, there is no reason to abandon it. Large government programmes are essential if Britain is to continue to be at the forefront of public service delivery.

Nor should we rest on our laurels and excuse poor performance. Of course it's right we hold government accountable for failure. And of course it's right we improve capacity and capability within government to deliver. But without understanding the unique pressures on public sector transformation, we won't be able to improve it.

Josie Cluer is the public sector lead at Moorhouse, the transformation consultancy

Add comment