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Building back better will rely on smarter project delivery

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Does the UK have the project management skills needed to deliver major projects successfully?

It is a pressing question as we enter 2021 and look ahead to a raft of projects that are set to reshape the UK’s physical and digital infrastructure. Published late in 2020, the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) outlines the scale of the ambition, as well as steps being taken to help make sure that government and industry can deliver. It underlines that the project profession’s skills are going to be in high demand. Much rides on our collective ability, as a profession, to deliver excellence in ever-more complex and fraught environments.

In political terms, the NIS is an important step in fleshing out the government’s promises to ‘level up’ across the UK. There is £27bn for a major road-building programme, money for railways – restoring lines cut by Beeching in the 1960s, as well as continuing with HS2 – and support for regional airports. Other aspects of the NIS include delivery of nationwide full fibre broadband by 2033; generating half of the UK’s power from renewables by 2030; 75 per cent of plastic packaging to be recycled by 2030; £43bn of transport funding for regional cities; preparations for all new vehicles sold to be electric by 2030; and work to improve resilience against both extreme drought and flooding.

The desire to ‘build back better’ after Covid-19 is widely held, of course, and the NIS is hugely important for us all. The pandemic has helped spur us to innovate and adapt how we approach projects. This is an opportunity to reset what, and how, major projects are delivered: both to kickstart the economy and to set it on a sustainable trajectory towards the challenging goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

How will we evaluate success? The Chancellor has said that “projects must have real impact”. That’s right, of course: but as the NIS notes, we also need to take account of “non-monetisable, non-economic impacts”. This surely means good project management will be an increasingly desirable skillset in delivering tangible public benefit.

In responding to COVID-19, many projects have prioritised speed: we were in a state of crisis, and there is an argument that rapid solutions were needed, even if at the expense of some quality. But that isn’t viable for the longer term.  We still need to deliver quickly, of course, and manage costs: but we have to deliver well and add value.

As APM’s Projecting the Future initiative highlighted over the course of 2019-20, that shift is closely related to increasingly working in a VUCA landscape: volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous. COVID-19 project delivery is ever-more challenging. As Projecting the Future suggested, we need to take a fresh look at the skills and techniques needed to deliver transformational projects. Indeed, a recent paper from McKinsey suggested overhauling project conception, feasibility and engineering, execution, commissioning and ramp up could make projects 30-50 per cent cheaper. There is a huge prize for the UK if it can genuinely raise its game through the adoption of project professionalism.

After all, fine words butter no parsnips, as the saying goes. In other words, plans alone aren’t enough. The government needs the capacity to deliver the plans envisaged in the NIS, so recognition of the importance of the project profession’s contribution is key. It is welcome that the NIS also sets out a number of measures to raise standards of project professionalism and improve delivery. Steps are being taken to recruit a pool of major project experts within government and key public services; to support the improvement in skills of senior responsible owners (SROs); and to set requirements for projects to demonstrate SRO capability and capacity. To support this, the Government Projects Academy – overseen by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) – will upskill people across government, with “world class delivery, modern methods and sustainable practices” at the heart of its training. There will be a new approach to developing and accrediting skills from 2021, and training on major project delivery will become a core expectation for government ministers and senior officials – another welcome move.

APM is pleased to be working with the IPA in this endeavour, which we hope will deliver the long-term capacity to drive recovery and a pathway for sustained success in project delivery. We are also doing work to build a more complete picture of the project professional of the future. Building on Projecting the Future’s core idea of the ‘adaptive’ project professional, capable of responding to the challenging landscape we all face, APM’s updated professional competence framework will consider emerging needs such as digital skills and people skills – the so-called ‘soft’ leadership skills that have increasingly becoming part of the project manager’s professional toolkit.

The NIS offers a challenging agenda for both public and private sector organisations to engage with and should shape the UK’s infrastructure for decades to come. The next step is making sure all stakeholders collaborate and engage successfully to deliver.

It’s been a tough year for all but in wishing you season’s greetings, let’s take the resilience shown this year and ensure we all deliver better in 2021.

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