118.Good data on the progress and success of projects enables the public and parliamentarians to understand how their money is being spent. The April 2019 Government financial reporting review published by HM Treasury observed that “good reporting helps users understand how those commitments are being delivered, putting the department’s financial activity in the context of the ways it is meeting the needs of its stakeholders.” Nick Smallwood, Head of the IPA, said “we are probably more transparent than just about every other Government in terms of the data that we share on the Government Major Projects Portfolio.”
119.The IPA publishes data on the GMPP annually. The latest IPA Annual Report on major projects states that there are currently 125 major projects on the portfolio with a total cost of £448bn. The report (and data published in appended tables) includes a timeline of delivery confidence assessments over the life of the project; the latest approved start and end dates with narrative; and baseline and forecast costs with narrative. Amongst the criticisms of the IPA reporting are that it does not include any measures of benefits as standard (but might include some ad hoc narrative); it is a year out of date at the time of publication; and it is hard to track data from one year to the next.
120.The Centre for Public Data raised concerns about the transparency of the major project portfolio in its evidence to the Committee, stating that “there are longstanding concerns about the quality and transparency of data on the Government’s major projects portfolio, as managed by the IPA”. Amongst the concerns raised by the Centre for Public Data was the lack of systematic benefits reporting.
121.It is also concerning that when projects on the GMPP have faced problems and have failed to deliver as expected, these problems had not been evident in earlier project reporting. In his letter to the Committee, the Comptroller and Auditor General raised the example of the Equipment Plan, referring to “changes in the basis of reporting between years, inconsistencies in data from different parts of the department and weak quality control checks.” He also mentioned HS2, stating that the Public Accounts Committee was:
looking at the most recent annual report and querying how open HS2 Ltd had been on significant issues around cost and delay.
122.There is much less data available on projects which fall outside the GMPP. These can include very large and sometimes high-profile Government projects, about which the public (including local people affected by the project) might struggle to find any good data at all. Often, the only source of information on these projects are the annual reports and accounts (ARA) produced by each Government department. In 2017, our predecessor Committee conducted an inquiry on Accounting for Democracy followed, in 2018, by Accounting for Democracy revisited, looking at the purpose and transparency of Government accounts. Those reports found that “currently there is very little information about individual projects and programmes within the Government’s Accounts.” The Committee recommended:
departments should report data about significant projects, such as Trident and HS2 (which is the largest infrastructure project in Europe), in their Annual Reports and Accounts. This data, which should also be audited, should include spend to date for each project, spend in the year for each project, milestones met or not met and forecasted end date for the project. It should be provided for all projects that are significant in terms of the delivery of the Government’s priorities or that have a lifetime budget that is above materiality.
123.The 2019 Government financial reporting review stated that “in order to effectively tell their story, departments should report on the performance of their major projects”. Subsequent updates to the Treasury Financial Reporting Manual (FReM) include a recommendation for the inclusion of trend data so that readers can see changes in expected outcomes over time. The FReM states that:
where statistics, metrics, or other indicators are disclosed without relevant trend data or comparators, the reason for the lack of trend data should be disclosed. For example, if it is the first year that an indicator has been collected, no prior period data is available.
124.The Comptroller and Auditor General explained that “at a minimum, for major projects, we think it would be useful for [annual reports and accounts] to include: up to date forecast cost and schedules for a programme, perhaps in the form of a range of costs/delivery dates; the key milestones it has achieved in the period, and expects to achieve in the next; as well as some description of the key risks that the programme is facing”. He also stated that “figures included within an ARA are sometimes difficult to reconcile with other publicly available information, and so departments should take to ensure consistency.”
125.The Accounting for Democracy report recommended that project data be audited, and this was put to Gareth Davies, who took up post as Comptroller and Auditor General in June 2019. He replied:
[My] job is to check that everything, including in that narrative part of the accounts, is consistent with our knowledge. Where we have already done work on a project and we know that what’s described is not a full picture, it’s our role to pick that up and make sure it has changed. We don’t do an original audit of all the numbers in the front part of the report. That wouldn’t be practical because of the sheer scale of the work that would entail in time for certification of the accounts. I’m content that the approach we have is the right one: asking if in all the narrative explanation of the delivery of major projects, is it consistent with the NAO’s knowledge of performance? We will flag up areas that need to be strengthened or corrected but the cost implications of doing an original audit of every number in the narrative part would be too high.
126.Good and transparent data is vital for parliamentary and public scrutiny of major projects. The Committee has seen examples of projects which have gone off the rails late, having shown little or no sign of difficulty through reported data. The Committee also notes that the standalone data published in IPA reports and in Departmental annual reports and accounts do not enable individuals to know whether projects are in line with what the public was promised when projects were devised.
127.As responsibility for policy on major projects and their management is shared across two departments, the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury should write to the Committee setting out the standardised data they expect departments to collect on the most significant projects. From 2020–21, all departments should publish this information in their annual reports.
129.Departments with large projects should, from 2021, be able to demonstrate compliance with the recommendations of the 2019 Government financial reporting review, the revised Financial Reporting Manual and the forthcoming thematic review of project reporting review of accounts, which included publishing trends in project data. Project data published in departments’ annual reports should be easily reconciled to data published in the IPA annual report and should be consistent with announcements by ministers or local elected officials. Where information on projects differs between these documents and announcements, a clear explanation or reconciliation should be given in the relevant department’s annual report.
130.The IPA should consider how it can publish data more quickly—and in particular highlight changes to the project, such as increases in costs or delay—so that these issues do not first emerge a year after the fact.
124 HM Treasury, the Government Financial Reporting Review, April 2019
126 Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Infrastructure and Projects Authority annual report 2020, 9 July 2020
127 Anna Powell-Smith (Director at Centre for Public Data) MP0008
128 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Letter from Gareth Davies, Comptroller and Auditor General, response to PACAC major projects inquiry, 24th April 2020
129 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Letter from Gareth Davies, Comptroller and Auditor General, response to PACAC major projects inquiry, 24th April 2020
130 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Accounting for democracy: making sure Parliament, the people and ministers know how and why public money is spent, HC95, 25 April 2017
131 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Accounting for Democracy Revisited: The Government Response and Proposed Review, HC1197, 27 June 2018
132 HM Treasury, the Government Financial Reporting Review, April 2019
133 HM Treasury, Government Financial Reporting Manual: 2019–20, 18 December 2019
134 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Letter from Gareth Davies, Comptroller and Auditor General, response to PACAC major projects inquiry, 24th April 2020
135 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Government’s management of its major projects, oral evidence, 5 May 2020
Published: 28 July 2020