Learning lessons from the first National Infrastructure Assessment

Published: 19 Mar 2019

By: Phil Graham

Publishing the first National Infrastructure Assessment was a major milestone for the National Infrastructure Commission. It was significant for us as the first of the assessments that we are required to publish every five years reviewing long term infrastructure needs. It was also the first assessment of its kind in the UK.

This lack of precedent meant that we encountered many challenges while working on the Assessment which required new and creative solutions. As a new organisation, even many of the basics had to be developed largely from scratch. Needless to say, we learnt a lot along the way.

All too often with these kinds of projects, experience is quickly forgotten. Reviewing and responding to lessons happens informally; and any learning is kept within the organisation, rather than being open and consulting with stakeholders about what could have been done better.

But for the Commission’s work to be credible and influential, we need to show how we have learnt from the first Assessment, applying these lessons to our current work as well as future Assessments. That’s why we committed to undertake a formal ‘lessons learnt’ review to capture these reflections on the Assessment process. This is not a common exercise; a web search for ‘lessons learnt’ does not yield many similar reports, particularly for evaluating major projects rather than specific interventions.

Over the past few months we have carried out a comprehensive engagement process to gather feedback from our Commissioners, the members of our Secretariat and, most importantly, our external stakeholders. This included workshops, an online stakeholder survey and anonymised interviews.

Today we’ve published our findings, drawing out conclusions across eight themed lessons. These range from high level questions such as how we measure and communicate trade-offs between the Commission’s objectives, to more functional but vital tasks of managing our procurements and the programme of work effectively.

Some of these findings we have already begun to address or will do soon. Others we will return to when designing the process for the second National Infrastructure Assessment. All of these findings are useful and can improve our future work, but there are a couple of reflections from the lessons learnt review which I found particularly striking.

First, collecting feedback was an excellent reminder of the huge number of people who fed into the Assessment, including contributors from a wide range of sectors, places, roles and types of organisation, as well as members of the public. But we need to keep challenging ourselves to ensure that we are hearing as wide a range of perspectives as possible, particularly from groups that are typically under-represented in infrastructure decision making. I wrote a blog about this recently, highlighting the steps we have been taking to improve diversity internally and our aspiration to raise the profile of diversity across the infrastructure sector.

Second, the review was another reminder of the unique position of the Commission and the opportunity that provides. Although the Assessment couldn’t satisfy everyone given the breadth of opinions presented to us, the overall sentiment of feedback from stakeholders was very positive. This wasn’t just about the Assessment itself but also the Commission’s role in general, particularly the opportunity for thinking about infrastructure strategy over the long term and across sectors.

The challenge for us is to live up to that expectation in the way we work and the recommendations we make, and is something that we will reflect on as we develop our studies on Freight, Regulation and Resilience, and when we design the process for the next National Infrastructure Assessment. I hope that publishing this lessons learnt review today demonstrates that we genuinely want to listen and improve.

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