The pound;38 million schools intranet project, Glow, is one of the Scottish Government's most competently handled capital projects, according to Audit Scotland, Neil Munro writes
In a report this week on the Government's pound;4.7 billion capital programme, which focuses mostly on transport and health projects, the public spending watchdog gave the intranet initiative almost full marks for its progress.
Cost and quality are said to be on target, while the likely delivery on time by 2010 to Scotland's 800,000 teachers and pupils is the only factor with a question mark; a "small overrun" is forecast.
The auditors examined Glow and 14 other projects against these three criteria and found 11 instances of uncertainty or where significant changes were required.
Schools, being the preserve of local government, did not feature in the analysis which concentrated on projects that were procured directly by national agencies.
The report found that the combined final cost of the 41 projects it scrutinised was pound;730 million, pound;84 million (or 13 per cent) more than their combined initial estimated cost of pound;646 million.
Robert Black, the Auditor General for Scotland, said there must be "an improvement in the information available at the earlier stages when important choices are being made about which projects should be committed".
He suggested that "a more strategic approach to managing the programme of capital projects could improve value for money".
Mr Black's comment was seized upon by Finance Secretary John Swinney to justify the Government's controversial decision to fund public investment projects, including schools, through a Scottish Futures Trust rather than public-private partnerships (PPP).
The report suggested that the trust could provide "a focal point for co-ordinated public sector infrastructure planning and investment," which "may" address some of the shortcomings in the present system. These include over-optimistic time and cost assumptions, and the fact that few evaluations were carried out to demonstrate that projects had delivered "the wider benefits which originally justified the investment".
Although there is concern that private investment could dry up, as the planned trust would minimise the return construction firms would get for their money compared with PPP, Mr Swinney remained bullish and repeated that the trust would release up to pound;150 million a year for increased investment.
"The SFT will enable greater partnership, improved preparation and handling of projects, and better value finance - an approach that Audit Scotland's report endorses," Mr Swinney commented.