The Public Accounts Committee report on the Navan Centre is available online [and as a pdf file here], which the BBC reports here. The Committee concluded that “This case is a classic example of how not to manage a cultural/tourism project” and declares it an expensive failure. But have lessons been learned? The Committee states – “We expect the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to ensure that the handling of any future projects in this sector fully reflects the experience of this expensive failure.” More hope over history.. to coin a phrase..The conclusions and recommendations of the PAC report are –
The complex funding and accountability arrangements
1. Navan had direct funding arrangements with ten organisations, including four government departments. The lack of formal, clearly defined lines of responsibility and of a co-ordinated approach to the operation of the Centre created confusion. The Accounting Officer for the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure stated that her Department was only responsible for 2% of the expenditure on the Navan Centre. We recommend that there should be clear understandings between departments at the start of cross-cutting projects such as this and responsibility for accountability arrangements should be clearly established.
2. The financial viability of the Centre depended crucially on revenue generated by visitors. Because the numbers of visitors fell considerably short of forecasts the Centre was in financial difficulties for most of its existence. Although it was clear from an early stage that the Centre would not be commercially viable, no one was prepared to face up to this reality, and there was a continual drip feeding of funds to the Centre over a number of years until it closed in 2001.
The over optimistic visitor numbers and the marketing strategy
3. The original forecasts of visitor numbers were grossly misleading and were clearly based on the wrong comparators. This meant that the Centre was always going to have an uphill struggle to survive. There is a need to ensure, in the case of future projects, that suitable comparators are used and that visitor forecasts are strongly challenged to ensure that they are realistic before any decision is taken to provide funding.
4. We were surprised to find that when visitor numbers were below expectations, and concerns were being expressed about the Centre’s viability, that more of an effort was not made to promote the Centre and attract more visitors. In fact, we were amazed to find that the marketing manager had been made redundant and the marketing strategy had not been updated for two and a half years during a key period for the Centre.
The unsatisfactory monitoring arrangements
5. Given the involvement of so many funding sources for the Centre, it is disappointing that the need for lead responsibility on the part of one department was not recognised. As a result the monitoring of the operation of the Navan Centre was totally unsatisfactory. It is a cause for some concern that there was no formally agreed protocol established between departments on Accounting Officer responsibility for the Centre.
6. There should have been a clear and formal understanding of the business relationship between the lead department and the Centre. The absence of such an understanding meant that, for example, for much of its life no department was carrying out a regular and detailed review of the underlying trading performance of the Centre.
Or, as the general conclusion, more pointedly, says –
Northern Ireland has fewer departments and operates on a much smaller and more intimate scale than Whitehall and it is disappointing that there is not more evidence of effective joined-up government in this case.