Investigation of government's flagship UNBOXED festival finds it was given go-ahead despite an 'overstatement' of its value to the economy by DCMS, but broadly met its audience targets.
Justin Sutcliffe for 59 Productions
The Department for Digital, Culture and Sport (DCMS) miscalculated the financial benefit of the UNBOXED festival ahead of the business case being approved, the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.
A report by the public spending watchdog found DCMS "overstated" the financial benefit of the festival by calculating the value of all 10 planned projects (including three in the devolved nations) based solely on the £80m cost to DCMS, rather than factoring in the full £120m cost across the entire UK.
The NAO also found that a progress review into the development of the festival conducted in October 2020 found that successful delivery of the programme was "in doubt" due to unnamed major risks or issues in a number of key areas.
However the report fails to reach a conclusion on whether the festival overall has been value for money due to final cost and audience engagement data not being available yet.
The NAO said an evaluation of the festival has been commissioned which is due to be completed in March 2023 and has asked for it to be published "in the interests of transparency" in order to "fully understand participation levels and the final cost".
"The evaluation should also identify lessons for the future from the experience of how projects have performed against their targets, and about the importance of agreeing clear objectives and setting performance targets early enough in any similar future programme’s lifecycle," the NAO said.
The UNBOXED festival consisted of a programme of 10 creative projects, with a series of events, activities and installations which took place at locations throughout the United Kingdom, and digitally, between March and November 2022.
It was originally announced by the then Prime Minister in September 2018 and included in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the December 2019 UK general election.
The NAO investigation was prompted by concerns raised by Chair of the DCMS Select Committee Julian Knight who described the project as an "excessive waste of money during a cost of living crisis".
The report found that DCMS approved the festival to proceed on the basis of a full business case containing estimated financial benefits of £170m. This figure was calculated by estimating the benefit of physical engagement with an event at £16.38 per person and digital engagement at £2.12 and applying those values to its modelled levels of audience engagement for each of the 10 projects.
But the NAO said DCMS "did not include the costs to be incurred by the devolved administrations, such as the costs of their three projects".
"As a result, it overstated the net present values of the options considered."
DCMS "reworked" the calculations for the NAO last month and found that the inclusion of the other costs would still have resulted in a positive net positive value for the business case and "would not have changed approval of the decision for the festival to proceed".
The NAO report also highlights concerns expressed about the project in a series of four reviews conducted by the government's Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) since March 2019.
The reviews in October 2020 and February 2021 rated delivery of the festival as "amber-red" and "amber" respectively. The amber-red rating indicates that successful delivery of the programme is "in doubt" with "major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas" that require urgent action.
"The last review in August 2021 rated the festival as amber [delivery of the project appears feasible but significant risks exist]," the report states.
"It acknowledged that progress to date had been considerable, but there was still a lot to do before the festival opened.
"Those selected to deliver the festival projects were still building their capacity while having to deliver a programme that was complex in terms of its novelty, innovation and delivery.
"According to the review, strong political and public support was also needed for the festival to be successful."
A fifth and final review by the IPA is planned for January 2023.
In terms of audience figures, in September 2021, DCMS modelled levels of public engagement as part of its full business case estimating that 23 million people would engage with the festival.
The team behind the project - Festival 2022 Ltd - conducted detailed engagement forecasts between March and August 2022 for each of the 10 projects before they went live, and therefore to finalise performance targets for all of them by September 2022 with the figure coming in 9.2 million people DCMS estimate.
The NAO's report found that, based on Festival 2022 Ltd’s public engagement figures of 18 million, the festival "as a whole had met its audience targets".
The total figure of just over 18 million reported in November 2022 exceeded the targets set earlier in the year by Festival 2022 Ltd, but was down on the 23 million originally forecast.
Value for money
DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP said: “It is frustrating that the NAO seems to have carried out the investigation with one hand tied behind its back with final cost and engagement figures not yet available from the organisers.
"Although the project has kept within budget, the goalposts have shifted throughout on audience engagement targets and it is simply not on for organisers to tell a select committee one number only to later claim this was more of a ‘creative device’ to boost interest.
"The big question remains as to whether the £120m shelled out for the festival represents value for money, and, as the NAO says, it is now absolute vital that the evaluation planned for early next year is as full and transparent as possible. The Committee will be continuing to look for answers on quite what the festival was for and whether it was worth it, and holding those that made the decisions to account.”