Someone had blunder'd: why project delivery is vital in the Civil Service

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Today John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office and Tony Meggs, Chief Executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), will give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on “Delivering major projects in Government”.

This one-off Select Committee session is based on a recent short study by the National Audit Office. The NAO, a little mischievously, stood up a press release around the report on snapshot figures that about a third of Government major projects were in some peril. The IPA is inherently interested in at-risk key projects which have some chance of failure. It uses a red-amber-green warning system which changes through projects’ lifespans.  A snapshot only tells you so much.

Where the NAO’s work is particularly telling, though, is on benefits realisation. These stark quotes from the study give a flavour:

“Departments often could not track costs and benefits or measure the impact of their projects....

“Where departments measure performance, they generally emphasise how efficiently they delivered the output to time and cost and even then this is problematic as performance is often measured against early estimates, which are not robust and based on an incomplete understanding of the scope of the project. Departments often overlook whether the project has realised the intended benefits......

“Departments are responsible for monitoring whether projects realise their intended benefits once they are completed. We have reported in the past that they often do not do this.

“One issue is that of accountability as often those responsible for delivering a project are not those who will be monitoring the project once it is complete, or accountable for the end-user benefits, which can span decades into the future.”

The PAC should rightly ask why Ministers – and the Accounting Officers (Permanent Secretaries) who carry the can for how public money is used – instigate projects costing huge amounts of money without having sufficient clear idea about what they will do, for whom, when, and for how much.

Project managers at the sharp end in the Civil Service then have to make sense of this and ride out the changing, competing demands of successive Ministers.

The Haldane Report of 1918, which recommended much of what we now regard as the fabric of modern Government, commented:

“We urge strongly that in all departments better provision should be made for enquiry, search and reflection before policy is defined and put into operation.”

Nearly a hundred years later, renowned politics academics Ivor Crewe and Anthony King published The Blunders of our Governments in which they depressingly surveyed the debris of famous and infamous failures. After four years of research, Crewe and King had a big pile of policy wreckage from which to choose.

Former Permanent Secretary Sir David Normington, himself no stranger to sorting out messes, reviewed the book and commented (emphasis added):

“Why then aren’t the lessons learned? Why don’t things get better? A recurring theme in the book provides, I think, most of the answer.

“A common feature of the “blunders” is the extent to which policy development gets separated from the realities of the world. In the worst cases policy is developed by small groups of like-minded people in Whitehall who share the same set of assumptions and fail to test those assumptions outside the group. The group often assumes that there is only one way of doing things: a common example until recently [sic] was the assumption that the private sector is always superior in know-how and efficiency. They often have little understanding of how people on the receiving end of the policy will behave or react – what the authors call, “cultural disconnect”.

“In the featured case studies all this is frequently made worse by “operational disconnect”. “No feature of the blunders we have studied”, say the authors, “stands out more prominently than the divorce between those who make policies and those charged with implementing them...Most of the policy makers responsible for the blunders...assumed they had done the hard bit when they had decided what Government policy should be. Clearly they were wrong.”

“There is one other factor, which can seriously increase the risk: the authors call it “Ministers as activists”. Their argument, which I believe is broadly true, is that since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Ministers have been judged by how active they are: by their ability to get things done, to set short deadlines, to drive things forward. Those who have expressed doubts or argued for slower implementation, say the authors, have increasingly seen their careers blighted and been characterised as the blockers of change.”

In another review, Peter Stern, drew an important conclusion:

Had the perpetrators of these blunders read one of the many books on project-management, the outcomes could well have been more positive....Indeed, it is not sufficient for politicians to have progressive policies; they also need to understand the methodologies which enable these policies to be efficiently implemented.

So there is an opening here for APM and its members to show what a difference project delivery makes to government - and for project management to become a deeper part of the fibre of the Civil Service, a discipline in which all successful civil servants must be steeped.

How do you think that planning and project delivery can be improved in government?

Julian Smith is Head of External Affairs at APM and writes in a personal capacity. He was a Senior Civil Servant from 2007-14.


Posted by Julian Smith on 20th Jan 2016

About the Author

Julian Smith was head of external affairs at APM.

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