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Project X Conference: the seven deadly sins of major projects

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Dame Meg Hillier MP has been chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) since 2015. The PAC scrutinises how the various government departments spend taxpayers’ money, and major projects have been a particular focus in recent years.

“We tend to look at the big-ticket items,” she told delegates at the Project X Conference, Sustainable Futures for Project Delivery. “A few million isn’t really going to carry it with us; it’s more like billions.”

In 2016, the PAC published a report on major projects, summarising its concerns with the way they were being delivered. It followed this with a report in January 2021, looking at the possible lessons learned from previous projects. “We, as a committee, don’t want to keep saying, ‘We’ve seen this problem before’,” said Hillier.

She laid out what she sees as the ‘seven deadly sins’ of government projects that offer lessons for all projects.

1. Optimism bias

Major government projects often have project sponsors or teams with an over-optimistic view of the timescale, the cost of delivery or both. Crossrail is a good example, Hillier explained.

“The very big complexities of Crossrail were the integration of all the various software systems to make sure the trains run on time, and we still haven’t got it open. We’ve been promised that it will be open between January and June of next year.”

2. A silo mentality

A big silo mentality runs within Whitehall, but a lot of projects cut across different departments. If you can’t get your teams looking at project spending holistically, it can cause some significant problems, said Hillier.

“There’s no issue for a department when it saves money in its area of work, but that often shunts the cost on to another part of the system.”

An example of this is that if you cut costs by reducing mental health services, the police will have to pick up the cost, as they are called more often to deal with people suffering with serious mental health issues. Another example is selling government land that would have been a prime location for a project led by a different department.

3. Short-term thinking

This issue is partly exacerbated by the short electoral terms that politicians serve, but it has become part of the culture in Whitehall. It results in less emphasis on longer-term projects that might be seen as business as usual, but are still critical.

Hillier cites the sale of MOD housing to Addington Homes as an example of short-term thinking causing a major issue. “My deputy is Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP. He was on the committee when the Addington Holmes sale went through, and has read scripts of the things he said at the time, warning about potential problems. It is still causing problems today, in terms of delivering housing for the Armed Forces.”

4. Lack of institutional memory

The COVID-19 pandemic threw this issue into focus for Whitehall. There were very few civil servants who could remember the financial crisis and could share expertise when designing support measures, and little information available on what had been done in the past. Hillier said that there were clear lessons to be learned for projects in keeping a good record of the actions and outcomes on past projects.

In a conversation about data retention, Hillier was told that “around 40 per cent of the records were out-of-office email responses. It’s not just about having the institutional memory of an event, but also knowing where to find [information] and have it accessible, sometimes to an individual, so that the lack of institutional memory is not a big concern.”

5. Capability

Hiller commented that the committee is like a broken record when it comes to the issue of skills. “And yet there is still a tendency in the civil service to think that the academic generalist is supreme.”

Whitehall is starting to see a shift in thinking in this area, she explained. More digital and project management skills are being sought in various departments. “Still, you can go very far as a non-specialist, and while there is a role for that person, it shouldn't be running all the biggest projects.”

6. ‘Fadism’

The sitting government often comes up with some kind of buzzphrase that they want to prioritise, from Levelling Up to The Big Society, and the civil service tries to fit around that vision, said Hillier.

But there are lots of ongoing projects that need to keep moving forward, she explained. “Changing the Police National Computer is a major project; it’s just never going to be a political priority. But things like that will take a very long time to deliver.”

7. Bad targets

Some targets can push people onto the wrong priorities, said Hillier. It can mean that people put all their efforts into meeting those targets, sometimes to the detriment of the original objectives those targets were supposed to achieve.

“We all know in a big institution that when you set a target, the system moves to meet that target even if there is some illogicality.”

Hillier is a big fan of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and wants to ensure that it’s able to have autonomy in what it looks at and have its recommendations taken on board. “We see so many changes with these projects. Sometimes through political interference, sometimes because it’s not being thought through properly. We see the costs ratcheting up.”

Every senior responsible owner should go through the Major Projects Leadership Academy, said Hillier, “to make sure that any civil servant who lands a project that’s worth multi-million pounds over many years, that they actually are equipped with the skills to ask the right questions and make sure that they can get it delivered.”

You can listen to recordings of the sessions from Project X’s Sustainable Futures for Project Delivery conference – supported by APM – in the links below:

Session A with introductions to speakers and panelists 

Session B with Gill Evan (HM Revenue & Customs)

Session C including Dame Meg Hillier MP

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