Financial modelling - is the government wasting millions?

By Gavin Stamp
Political reporter, BBC News


Millions of pounds of taxpayers money could be saved every year if civil servants were not wasting time trying to decipher unnecessarily complicated financial spreadsheets, research suggests.

The difficult and often opaque task of financial modelling is vital for officials making decisions about how public money is spent on major infrastructure projects and procurement.

But a group of professional services firms - including Deloitte and Grant Thornton - estimate that Whitehall wastes as much as £70m a year because there is no agreed way to present this dense and labyrinthine data.

Kenny Whitelaw-Jones, from financial modelling standards body the Fast Standards Organisation, says this calculation is based on the amount of time that staff spend "decoding and deciphering" different spreadsheet models when they could be more efficiently employed elsewhere.

"The problem is that people are spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to understand these models" he says.

With staff often working under extreme time pressures, this state of affairs can lead to errors and this is potentially serious when you consider that most large project decisions are underpinned by detailed financial modelling.

The Laidlaw report into the West Coast mainline franchise debacle, where serious flaws emerged in how the bids were evaluated, identified financial modelling as one area of government that could be improved.

It recommended "formal quality assurance" procedures be set up in respect of modelling and wider audit functions encompassing industry best practice.

'Very clever'

These issues are by no means limited to government.

Mr Whitelaw-Jones says models are put together by "very clever people" but are often not "interoperable" - shorthand for saying that even the most qualified specialists in the public and private sector can struggle to interpret them.

In the 1990s, a set of rules for the structure and design of spreadsheet-based models, based around the principles of accuracy, flexibility, and transparency, were devised to try and bring some uniformity to the field.

A group of accountants and modelling experts recently formed the not-for-profit body Fast Standards Organisation to agree a common way of training people to apply them.

Mr Whitelaw-Jones says a standardised approach in this area could potentially save the government millions of pounds in terms of better time management as well as reducing the bill for external consultants - even before the impact on decision-making is taken into account.

He believes that it could help improve the quality of economic forecasting across a range of public services, such as house building.

So far, interest in common standards has largely been confined to the private sector.

But Edinburgh Council, the first public body to adopt the Fast Standard methodology, says it has helped it save about £100,000 on a range of projects including its "Zero Waste" initiative to provide dedicated facilities for the treatment of food and residual waste.

"This standard helps us to reduce external consultancy fees on large projects and enables our staff to gain the expertise they need to build financial models and revise as appropriate," a council spokesman says.

All this should, in theory, be music to the ears of the Cabinet Office - the government's central nervous system - which has spent the last two years trying to streamline Whitehall procurement practices and reduce the outlay on external advisers in an effort to save billions of pounds.

As part of its wider efficiency drive, a spokesman said the government was "on track" to make efficiency savings £8bn by the end of the year and it was also looking into financial modelling.

He said: "Financial models are used in government procurement processes to maximise value for money for the taxpayer. We are currently reviewing how we assess our analytical models, including those used for financial modelling, and will set out recommendations on how to extend best practice across government."

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