Spectator sport – learning lessons from the Olympics
It took the best part of a decade for the London Olympics & Paralympics to be bid for, won and ultimately delivered. It took 29 days for both events to provide a festival of sport that would swamp the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist. It took the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) a total of 20 minutes to hear all they needed to know about what lessons could be taken from the success of the project at its latest hearing last Wednesday. After that the Committee went into an hour of questioning on security arrangements around the Games – something that the Home Affairs Committee had already published a three volume report on back in September.
The Institute for Government has been running a project on making the Games over the last three months to draw out the lessons of London 2012 – and our report will be published in January. There is much government can learn from the successful management of the eventual £9.3 billion public sector funding package, regeneration of an urban wasteland and the success of the arm’s-length organisations – particularly LOCOG and the Olympic Delivery Authority – that delivered the Games.
But while our interviewees saw the project as strengthened by some of the multiple sources of external scrutiny, one which they felt had little positive impact was that provided by select committees. Wednesday’s hearing was a case in point.
Our interviewees – from across government and Olympic delivery bodies – tended to see select committees as performing a necessary constitutional role around the Games, but without adding much value to the project itself. Indeed, the decision of the Home Affairs committee to haul G4S CEO Nick Buckles over the coals ten days before the Olympic opening ceremony was cited by one as causing a needless risk to the Games by distracting G4S from helping to fix the problem that they had caused.
Their criticisms mirrored the Institute’s previous work on select committee performance. Back in January 2011 the Institute argued that PAC had historically failed “to secure a real understanding of what [departments] have achieved” and needed to focus more on “identifying and promoting good practice and success”. The bear pit atmosphere which often characterises select committee hearings can make for a compelling spectacle but also reinforces a civil service culture which the Civil Service Reform Plan characterised as one which “can be cautious and slow-moving, focused on process not outcomes [and] bureaucratic”. The treatment that Wednesday’s witnesses got – which included an accusation (subsequently withdrawn) that their handling of a £9.3 billion budget had been “dishonest” – is one reason why civil servants feel they have to act with such caution.
These problems are not limited to the PAC but reflect how select committees operate more broadly. Since the Olympics concluded there have been three separate evidence sessions called by select committees; two have focused exclusively on security failures while Wednesday’s primarily examined security and legacy.
As Simon Hoggart wrote last week, DCMS Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens had been invited to appear at three separate select committees in the weeks after the Paralympics, only for the hearings to be subsequently cancelled. In the absence of apparent Games failures, not one select committee opted to hold a hearing on what could be learned from success.
Unlike the select committees, our project has sought to accentuate the positive. Our report will set out a series of lessons for government on how future major projects can learn from London 2012. Given that government currently has £376 billion of major projects under management, more effort must go into learning lessons from when they succeed as well as when things don’t quite go to plan.