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Tue May 21 2024

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UK 'lacks skills' for major infrastructure, say MPs

5 days A House of Commons investigation has concluded that the UK does not have the capability to deliver the government’s infrastructure plans.

A report from the House of Commons backbench public accounts committee (PAC) says that there is a shortage of project professionals to deliver the national infrastructure programme.

Furthermore, in an indictment of the Infrastructure Projects Authority, the report says that the silo structure of government means that sponsor departments are failing to learn from the failures of other departments.

The report, Delivering value from government investment in major projects, says that skills shortages coupled with a lack of robust evaluation of projects risks value for money.

The skills shortage is a particular problem in government client organisations, the MPs note.

Skills shortages in technical and engineering disciplines are set to worsen as gaps in the UK’s workforce are compounded by competition from major global development projects, it says. Project management and design are also areas of concern, and skilled professionals in senior positions in particular.  Of 16,000 project professionals that are required to gain accreditation from the government’s major project leadership academy, only 1,000 have done so. This failure to build market capacity could result in higher prices for scarce skills, the MPs say.

In March 2023, the government major projects portfolio included 244 projects with an estimated total whole-life cost of £805bn. Despite this level of investment, the PAC believes that government departments are failing to devote the time and effort needed to ensure they maximise the value that comes from projects. Only 8% of the £432bn spend on major projects in 2019 had impact evaluation plans in place and around two-thirds had no plans at all. This is despite effective evaluation being required to provide evidence for what works, demonstrate value and to make the case for or against further investment. Thus decisions are being made in the absence of evidence, risking value for money.

“There are signs of improved cross-government working but government still struggles to establish effective governance and accountability arrangements on the most complex projects where multiple departments are involved,” the report says.

It adds: “There are government forums for the sharing of lessons about what works well in project delivery, such as the IPA-chaired Government Construction Board.  However, learning across government departments still does not occur systematically, and departments must think more broadly about lessons in maximising long-term value, rather than just about lessons in delivering similar projects. The IPA acknowledged it could do more to challenge departments to learn from one project to another. Our February 2024 report on cross-government working also highlighted a lack of routine data sharing between departments and poor arrangements for sharing best practice and learning.”

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Public Accounts Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier MP said “Over the coming years, government spending on major infrastructure projects is set to rise to unprecedented levels. Such projects present unique and novel challenges which government must navigate if it is to secure value for public money. Without a robust market for essential skills in place, these are challenges the UK will fail to meet, as shortages push costs up in a globally competitive environment.

“All too often we see projects and programmes that are poorly managed and delivered late and over budget. The failure to ensure projects have robust impact evaluation plans in place is symptomatic of the short-term mentality dominating these processes. The government must encourage cross-departmental learning if we are to avoid repeating past mistakes.”

Commenting on the report, David Crosthwaite, chief economist at the Building Cost Information Service (BCIS), said: "BCIS completely agrees with the proposition by the Public Accounts Committee that the civil service does not have adequate skills to act as an informed client and oversee the delivery of major infrastructure projects and programmes.

"Primarily, skills in cost management, engineering, and project and programme management are lacking and as a result the government must resort to the use of private sector consultants, at a significant cost to cover the shortfall in expertise.

"It’s questionable whether this approach represents value for public money. In the UK there is a litany of infrastructure projects that are delivered late and or over budget. Do we learn from the failures of the past? It appears not.

"Where consultancies are used there is an understandable reluctance, on their part, to share data and information with others. So, it’s no surprise that we end up repeating the same mistakes because we are not learning from past performance.

"Data sharing across projects is crucial to address some of the current challenges and this should be better facilitated by the public sector client or the government client, which need a much more hands-on approach to delivering the infrastructure the country needs.

"We need more well-managed major projects to stimulate the economy and get Britain growing again."

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