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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.


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  1. Jacqueline Adams
    Jacqueline Adams 30 January 2016, 01:06 PM

    As someone with real experience of trying to deliver projects within a large Government department, I thought I would share a few common difficulties that I faced...Firstly, most initiatives are politically-driven: Government ministers generally have a very short shelf-life and are (in my opinion) wholly focused on quick wins. Secondly, there is (as the first report mentions) an ingrained culture in Whitehall of paying millions of pounds of public money to private management consultancy firms to find out how to save money and become more efficient. Invariably the firms recommend a whole raft of changes - most of which, at face value, are hard to argue against. Furthermore, the consultants are very good at making high-level calculations as to the vast millions of savings that the changes will deliver - invariably gross savings; that is to say, they rarely take into account the cost of delivery of the changes required to enable the benefits to be realised!So, a minister is 'sold' on an ambitious change programme that hasn't been properly scoped or evaluated and then 'we're off'! The department is told to get it done, oh and the (assumed) savings are removed from the future budget in anticipation of a successful outcome. Is it any wonder then that public sector projects fail - or at least struggle, run late, deliver lower benefits etc? Until project management is valued and required as a key skill for the most senior civil servants; and until the civil service can demonstrate realism in the face of overwhelming poltical pressure to the contrary, nothing will change.

  2. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 21 January 2016, 11:46 AM

    Hi Julian,I am grateful to you, not only for highlighting the publication of this landmark report on Delivering Major Projects in Government but also, for your company at the Public Accounts Committee yesterday. Whilst most people will know that parliamentary proceedings can be viewed on Parliamentary TV it is good sometimes to see these things 'up close and personal'I am particularly pleased that in the report, at Appendix One, it outlines the approach that the NAO has taken and their conclusion that there are five Key Challenges for Her Majesty's Government for their current term in office namely,- Understanding the costs of major projects- Delivering transformation- Managing the portfolio- Realising benefits- Strengthen capabilityI also note that around 80% of the current Government Major Projects Portfolio [GMPP] are categorised as being 'transformational' in nature. This type of project can be fiendishly difficult to execute as it inevitably involves the complexities, of dependencies upon, significant changes in human behaviour. And it is precisely this type of project, or programme, that is the sweet spot for Benefits [Realisation] Management.If ever there was a time for those of us who are passionate about Managing Benefits to stand up and be counted - it is now!Whilst I fully endorse Ed Wallington's infomercial for ProgM SIG Conference "Equipping Programme Managers for Global Success" on 10 March [which I understand is filling up fast] I also commend our Benefits Summit #apmbmsummit on 23 June. See also last year's proceedings at Benefits Summit Resources Merv

  3. Edward Wallington
    Edward Wallington 20 January 2016, 10:06 PM

    Hi Julian,A very thought provoking post, and certainly one that echoes a recurring theme of failing projects, not just in Government but generally.I think the ‘disconnect’ is certainly a key factor – both in setting the vision, understanding the project requirements, and the intended benefits. There is also an element of understanding their role in the project as Accountable Officer – as an ongoing commitment not just a ‘right that’s agreed, and therefore done’.I suspect that the disconnect is not just one sided, and the projects teams also need to be bringing the Perm Secs and other senior colleagues more into the ‘project circle’ – projects are after all a team sport :)The ProgM SIG are looking to bridge this gap with our Introduction to Programme Management guide which is currently in final stages of finalising the 2nd Edition.  We cover a number of elements, but one is the importance of senior managers understanding and championing the work to ensure successfully delivery of a programme of change, and the realisation of the intended benefits.  We are aiming to launch our guide at the APM Programme Management Conference on 10th March in London.Regards,Ed