What you find when you evaluate the effectiveness of government spending

By on 23/06/2022 | Updated on 23/06/2022
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Proper evaluation of government spending can reveal lessons that can be used to improve the quality of public services. Phil Bradburn from the UK’s National Audit Office shares what he found when evaluating government policy delivery, and how it can be made better

Evaluation of what government does is invaluable. It provides a way for government to understand what works and what doesn’t, allowing it to ensure that policies are evidence-based and represent good value for money. Evaluation also helps parliament and other scrutiny bodies to hold government to account for delivery of projects and programmes.

In the UK, the government spends billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every year, including on important public services and maintaining and building new infrastructure. However, much of this government expenditure is either poorly evaluated, or simply not evaluated at all.

Global Government Forum training: Monitoring and Evaluation

Our 2021 report on Evaluating government spending set out to assess what progress government has made in strengthening its use of evaluation since our 2013 report on this topic. We interviewed senior civil servants, reviewed key documents, conducted surveys, and carried out case studies to build a detailed evidence-based picture.  

A stark finding was that out of government’s 108 most complex and strategically significant projects just nine – representing only 8% of £432bn (US$531.77bn) in spending – had robust evaluation plans in place. If government doesn’t evaluate properly, it cannot know whether a project was successful or not. It’s a missed opportunity for learning and improvement.

Our recent report on the UK government’s kickstart scheme designed to boost youth employment – found that it lacked monitoring, and assurance on the quality of placements and on jobs would have existed anyway – limiting what they could learn about the impact of the scheme.  

In our report on supporting local economic growth we found that local growth policies and interventions are not consistently informed by evidence of effectiveness, increasing the risk that billions of pounds given to local bodies won’t deliver the intended benefits.

But we also see good practice.

Our report on managing tax debt 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.

Government requirements and expectations around evaluation are set out in the long-standing HM Treasury Green and Magenta Books. It has recently increased its focus on evaluation and has set up an Evaluation Task Force. This has been welcomed across government and by the National Audit Office (NAO) as a step to using evidence better and improving value for money.

But there are still a range of limitations in the current system and many long-standing barriers. They include a lack of oversight and clarity in roles and responsibilities. We also found there was a lack of transparency in evaluation plans. We found there was poor follow-up to see whether departments were complying with requirements – and little consequence if not.

We all want to see improvements in public services and better evaluation evidence can contribute to that. So how can this be achieved?

The recommendations set out in our Evaluating government spending report are directed toward the centre of government and are aimed at securing long-lasting improvements for all departments, building on progress and momentum so far.

We see key areas for improvement around building evaluation into policy design and delivery and taking concerted action to boost skills and understanding of evaluation across analyst and policy communities – especially at senior levels.

We want to see greater transparency, in particular a commitment to publishing evaluation findings regardless of whether the findings are considered good or poor.

Beyond this, we want to see further action to better manage the knowledge gained from evaluation. This is important to stop government wasting opportunities to learn collectively from its successes and failures.

It’s going to require the various parts of government and the wider evaluation community to work together if these positive changes will happen and last. Read more at https://www.nao.org.uk/report/evaluating-government-spending/  

Phil Bradburn will be speaking at an upcoming event as part of the Evidence Quarter’s Better Evidence, Better Government series, setting out the NAO’s perspective on using evaluation to secure value for money in policy making. To register for the in-person event on 30 June, which will take place in Westminster in London, please visit the Eventbrite page.

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About Phil Bradburn

Phil Bradburn is an audit manager at the National Audit Office

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