Too many pilots fly nowhere at great expense

1st June 2007 at 01:00
is a former director of the Basic Skills Agency

Pilot projects are usually a waste of time. So why has so much been spent on funding pilot schemes, most of which come up with the blindingly obvious?

Over the past 20 years or so, millions of pounds have been spent on pilot projects, yet few have provided anything of much use and most come up with conclusions that are self-evident.

The main reasons why so many pilots have been commissioned are threefold.

First, pilot projects are sometimes funded because research takes too long to produce results. For example, few policy-makers can wait for the time research will take to make a judgment about the effectiveness of a whole raft of early-years initiatives and measures. Research takes years because the impact of an early-years initiative might not be apparent until school-leaving age. Basing success on immediate impact is not much good because the impact of an initiative is often short-lived.

Second, there is a natural desire to stop everyone reinventing the wheel and to prevent expensive mistakes and waste. This is why many pilot projects are about finding and disseminating effective practice. In my experience, most of these do not work very well at all.

Some years ago, I was responsible for funding a bus to tour rural areas to help and encourage adults who had problems with literacy. But getting on a bus that, by the very act, said you could not read and write too well was not that popular in the average village. In fact, the project probably succeeded more as a spectator sport - seeing who would board the bus - than as a literacy scheme after problems such as breakdowns, lack of a driver and the cramped conditions of a bus militated against it. This did not stop me receiving applications to fund bus pilot projects for the next 20 years.

I had a similar experience with a literacy shop that was a great success in providing information on the best way to the bus station but was not very popular with adults who wanted to improve their reading and writing.

Third, government officials like pilot projects because they demonstrate "action", not "words" to their bosses and to ministers. Recently, the term "pilot project" has been dropped in favour of "pathfinder". (This has always seemed an odd choice to me as, from my understanding, the success of the "pathfinders" in the last war was limited, to say the least). Of course, a change of name gives an impression of newness and helps to buy time for a policy or strategy that has not been quite thought through.

All of this is easy in hindsight. Frankly,I am a reformed pilot project funder. I funded a lot of projects, most of which came up with the startling conclusion that things work better if the staff are interested, skilled and committed, if there are clear aims and objectives, if the local community is consulted and if there is good funding.

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