In today’s report the National Audit Office (NAO) draws on the breadth of its work on EU Exit to share its perspectives on what government can learn from this experience. The learning is relevant to the ongoing work to prepare for the end of the transition period and for other cross-government challenges, such as the response to COVID-19 and moving to a net zero carbon economy.
When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, it created an unprecedented challenge for government. Departments had to formulate new policies, procure goods and services, design and implement new systems and engage stakeholders. Departments also had to plan for multiple potential outcomes and respond to changing deadlines. The scale of resources devoted to the work was significant. Departments spent more than £4.4 billion on preparations between 2016 and 31 January 2020. Ahead of the then 31 October 2019 deadline, more than 22,000 civil servants were involved in EU Exit.
Government still has a lot to do to manage the end of the transition period, particularly on preparations for the border. It is now also responding to the demands of a global pandemic, which like EU Exit requires a fast-paced response, coordinated action and effective external transparency and communication.
Today’s report from the NAO highlights nine insights which fall into four key areas: planning, oversight, collaboration and financial management. The key points include:
- The need for government to improve how it deals with uncertainty by planning for scenarios which will have a significant impact and could reasonably occur, even if some of these may not be the desired outcome.
- The importance of government developing clear structures for quick decision-making and clear accountability. It should also draw on expertise in implementation from the start as a routine part of policy development, to build a realistic understanding of the scale and complexity of the task.
- The need to engage early with partners, stakeholders, businesses and individuals to understand and communicate what is required of them.
- The importance of strong financial management and the need to track spending from the outset.
“Preparing for EU Exit continues to be a highly complex and challenging task for government and stakeholders. Our work draws out the learning from government’s experience to help it improve its approach, by planning for multiple outcomes ahead of time, ensuring clear oversight structures, collaborating more effectively, and ensuring strong financial management is built in from the start.
“Government can draw on this learning in preparing for the end of the transition period and beyond, and in managing other cross-government challenges including its response to COVID-19 and net zero.”
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO