National Audit Office Press Releases
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Helping Government Learn

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.

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.

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office, said today:

"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."

Notes for Editors

  1. This report examines how departments could be better at learning which occurs in many ways. Staff can gain insights and experience from simply doing their work, whilst training can help in developing new skills and knowledge. Feedback from customers and timely analysis of complains can help drive improvements, and comparisons with the actions of other organisations can act as a stimulus to do things in new or innovative ways.
  2. This report looked at 11 case examples of public sector learning. These were: The ePassports scheme, The Productive Ward Programme, learning from complaints systems, the response to the 2007 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak, DFID staff delivery chain, the Cabinet Office’s Capability Building Programme, HMRC Angels and Dragons programme, the US Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, OGC Gateway review, local government Beacon Scheme and Select Committee Parliamentary Scrutiny.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Tim Burr, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 850 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

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