Before formulating your answer, it may be useful to know the government in question is Westminster!
Readers of the TuS blog will recall many occasions when the media in Scotland, including notably BBC Scotland, have made much use of a phrase pulled from Audit Scotland reports critical of the Scottish Government or a Scottish public service. By contrast, we learn little or nothing from the media in Scotland about what the National Audit Office (NAO) concludes about the Westminster government. It’s as if people and businesses in Scotland are not UK tax payers too!
A new publication from the NAO entitled ‘Evaluating government spending’ provides a case in point.
This NAO report delivers ‘audit’ findings on Westminster governance: therefore it is relevant to Scottish tax payers and Scottish voters. The findings arguably should be just as important to them as any Audit Scotland report, perhaps even more so given the relative scale of spending involved. But will any news outlet aimed at a Scottish audience cover this? Indeed how much media coverage will the NAO report attract anywhere in the UK? We’ll see but given its conclusions I have my suspicions!
In the report’s introduction the NAO sets the scene: ‘Evaluation is a systematic assessment of the design, implementation and outcomes of an intervention. Central government guidance makes it clear that departments are expected to undertake comprehensive, robust and proportionate evaluations of their interventions. It is one of many types of evidence that can inform decision-making. Evaluation evidence can help governments understand which approaches work best and support accountability for decisions.’
And having established the rationale and importance of evaluation for good governance, the NAO’s conclusions are to say the least ‘revealing’. Here are a few:
‘… much government activity is either not evaluated robustly or not evaluated at all. In December 2019, the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit (PMIU) concluded that government has little information in most policy areas on what difference is made by the billions of pounds being spent. Out of government’s 108 most complex and strategically significant projects in its Government Major Projects Portfolio, only nine – representing 8% of £432 billion in spending – are evaluated robustly, while 77 (64% of spend) have no evaluation arrangements.’ (my emphasis)
‘Government’s guidance is that “the presumption should be for maximum openness and transparency to allow others to critique the methods used, as well as learn from and replicate them. ……” We heard that departments could find it difficult to get approval from senior civil servants and Cabinet Office to publish evaluations and protocols.’
And also this: ’As a result government cannot have confidence its spending in many policy areas is making a difference.’
These failures are not new as the NAO states: ‘Our 2013 report, Evaluation in government, concluded .. coverage of evaluation evidence was incomplete, and the rationale for what government evaluates was unclear. We also found that evaluations were often not robust enough to attribute the impact to the policy being evaluated, and that government did not effectively use the learning from these evaluations to improve impact and cost-effectiveness.’
Now I suspect that an objective review of any government or public body across the UK and beyond on such matters would find flaws: whether the findings would be quite as damning as these for Westminster is debatable. But the point I want to make here is a different one.
We are well used to the end result of BBC Scotland’s researchers/journalists combing ever so carefully through reports on some aspect of Scottish Government activity in search of just that ‘right’ word or phrase to pull out and quote – sometimes on multiple occasions – for maximum negative impact. As the above extracts alone should illustrate adequately, the notion of a comparable journalistic approach being used in BBC reporting in Scotland of this NAO report severely critical of Westminster is fanciful in the extreme!
And so again it is probable that most tax payers in Scotland will remain in (blissful) ignorance of what the NAO has investigated and exposed about Westminster on their behalf.