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Levelling up: major opportunity or political bandwagon?

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In February, the government unveiled its Levelling Up the United Kingdom white paper, with the aim of ending “geographic inequality” in the UK. Levelling up secretary Michael Gove said this would be achieved through investment in infrastructure in the North and regions, such as transport and broadband. It would also encompass machinery, housing, the green industrial revolution, education and freeports.

UK government functions and civil servants will also be moving outside of Whitehall to spread wealth, talent, focus and ideas more evenly.

A possible boon

Aside from stoking a revival in the UK’s regions, the levelling up plans could also be a boon for the project profession. APM’s Head of public affairs Andrew Baldwin wrote in response to the white paper that “a strong vision, a clear delivery roadmap and a project-centric approach” would be needed to deliver the changes required. “The government has referred to this initiative as a decade-long project,” he said.

Project professionals share some of this excitement and sense of opportunity, but stress that a huge amount of work has to be done to fulfil the government’s aims.

Martin Samphire, Director at 3pmxl, said levelling up offers benefits to all project professionals, especially those at the investment/sponsor end of the process. He is confident there will be more projects, mainly in infrastructure, but wonders whether they will deliver the outcome objectives.

“We still do not apply good practice on enough projects so are left disappointed by the results and outcome,” he says. “For the levelling up agenda to succeed, the outcome, not just the output, of the projects has to be seen to match the strategic objective. Do we yet have a clear view of how to measure these outcomes and KPIs? Has sufficient capital been put aside to deliver the desired outcomes? I’m not convinced at this stage on both those areas. The white paper has not gone far enough.”

KPIs concern

Samphire fears that levelling up could instead be a political bandwagon: “Yes, the Treasury’s Green Book has changed the way that projects are considered from a business-case perspective to favour more projects up North and the social impact. But again, do we have really good KPIs to measure the outcome and impact of the portfolio of projects considered? Will we get strong sponsorship to drive the best strategic outcomes rather than just building assets?”

Valentina Lorenzon, an Independent Project Manager, agrees with Samphire that levelling up is a great opportunity for project professionals to take a central role in delivering change, but that much more is needed.

“It requires clear goals and, even more importantly, a strong delivery plan which takes into account the different nature, size and all the other variables of a project,” she says. “Implementation is key and there is a risk of ending up with a lot of strategies and processes but a lack of actionable plans for an efficient and beneficial delivery. We could have multiple disjointed or fragmented projects lacking an overarching strategy, coordination and a consistent, goal-oriented approach.”

In this scenario, the government may only end up with localised, modest improvements, but not an overarching transformational national change.

Project professionals’ key role

Lorenzon says that project professionals could become the “bridge” between different stakeholder groups to improve the chance of effective projects being delivered. “As a profession, we have the opportunity to gain buy-in and engagement. We can be in the middle between government and other stakeholders, like transport organisations,” she says. “I will be playing my part by engaging with SMEs to have their say on what projects are needed. They are the backbone of the country and I want to help them be involved, such as letting infrastructure companies know exactly what they need. It should be a more bottom-up rather than top-down strategy.”

She calls on project professionals to create a cross-sector approach across regions, sharing knowledge and collaborating to ensure projects succeed. “We also need to manage the expectations and perceptions of stakeholders,” she says. “This is due to the scepticism and often bad reputation that have surrounded previous projects that overpromised and underdelivered. Trust, clarity and transparency are key.”

Speaking truth to power

Indeed, Jon Broome of Leading Edge Project Consulting, worries that project professionals may carry the can for any failure in the levelling up drive. “Politicians work on a four- or five-year cycle. There is a risk that they will push out a vote-winning project like a sparkling new leisure centre in an under-privileged area and it will be rushed and poorly implemented,” he says. “Project professionals need to have the confidence to call these projects out. We know what makes a good project.”

Their voice could be limited, however, in the North and regions, where project management capacity may not be sufficient to meet demand.

“The key issues are the lack of talent, the project skills gap and the risk that the focus is too much on the quantity of jobs created, instead of on the quality and suitability of the skills available,” says Lorenzon. “One of the key differences between the regions is the level of productivity. Each region is very specific, with its own level of skills, resources, competencies and potential for growth. Also, there should be a stronger link between education, research and the profession.”

She added adds that appropriate, targeted training needs to be available and there must be an openness to adopting innovative approaches and questioning previous practices and assumptions.

She is hopeful that the industry will respond. “Overall, levelling up gives our industry the chance to leverage our skills and influence. We need to do it this time,” Lorenzon says.

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