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Governments must do better at learning lessons from past failures

Governments must do better at learning  lessons from past failures

Gareth Davies

3 min read

Government is missing an opportunity to improve the way it plans and implements policy, and this stems from the fact that it could be doing more to evaluate its work.

Interventions need to be based on evidence, especially when there could be millions, if not billions, of taxpayers’ money at stake. Government needs to be aware of what works and what doesn’t.

Otherwise, it cannot be certain that it is choosing the most effective policy option when attempting to address some of the most complex and pressing issues we face. 

For example, our February 2022 report about government’s efforts to stimulate local economic growth found that policies and interventions in this area are not consistently informed by evidence of what is likely to be most effective. This increases the risk that the billions of pounds awarded to local bodies will not deliver the intended benefits.

Poor understanding of evaluation at senior levels, and a lack of political engagement with the results of evaluations, remain challenges.

So how does government build this evidence base? By evaluating its interventions or projects and learning from them. Our December 2021 report, which examined how well government evaluates its work, found that only eight per cent of the £432bn planned spending on major projects in 2019 had robust evaluation plans in place. If government doesn’t evaluate, it cannot know whether a project was successful or not and misses the opportunity to learn from its successes or failures. 

While the use of evaluation varies between departments, there have been good examples of government evaluating and applying lessons to improve outcomes. One of our recent reports found that HM Revenue and Customs had been effective in using and learning from behavioural insights. For example, it has been conducting randomised control trials on debt management since 2012 to improve the impact of its interventions.

To evaluate effectively, clear and measurable objectives must be in place at the beginning, so that government can assess whether it delivered what it set out to achieve. But evaluation should not be limited to the end of a project or intervention; integrating evaluation throughout the policy design and delivery process will help departments identify how an intervention might be modified to maximise impact, or if it should be cancelled. For example, the Department for International Trade is redesigning its export promotion interventions in response to evaluation evidence on what works. 

It is important that learning is gathered and shared amongst teams and between departments. Departments shouldn’t be operating in silos, and easy access to information on what works means they can learn from each other. This can also save time and help strengthen the strategic case for future interventions.

This seems straightforward in theory, but there are significant barriers to good evaluation that have persisted over time, which government is working to address through a new Evaluation Taskforce.

Poor understanding of evaluation at senior levels, and a lack of political engagement with the results of evaluations, remain challenges. On the other hand, policymakers told us they needed more support to understand evaluation evidence. Overall there is still not enough incentive for departments to produce and use evaluation evidence.

As part of our role supporting Parliament to scrutinise government spending, we publish reports on a wide range of government programmes and interventions. Our reports and recommendations are also a source of learning to improve practice and avoid repeating past mistakes. If you would like to discuss our work, or learn more about how we can support you, please get in touch with me or our parliamentary relations team at parliament@nao.org.uk.

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