With political party conference season at an end, I want to reflect on the implications for projects and programmes, and the people who deliver them.
For anyone working in public affairs, late September and early October is the busiest time of the year with the arrival of the political party conference season. The public’s usual experience of conference season is a few policy announcements on the radio or soundbites from the party leaders, but they are so much more than that. 10-15,000 people turn up to these events and this includes an eclectic array of people such as MP’s, Peers, Councillors, party members, lobbyists, policy makers and, as we saw in Liverpool, the occasional protestor. And they’re all there for speeches, a bustling exhibition and a whole host of fringe meetings on every subject you could imagine.
We chose to attend the conferences of the three biggest UK-wide political parties this year to ensure that the voice of the profession is being heard in high level political discussion and debate. We did this through conversations with MPs, Peers and other stakeholders, asking questions at fringe events, particularly around the need to invest in project skills now and in the future, and by hosting our own fringe event at Conservative and Labour conferences.
Unfortunately, some politicians still haven’t heard of APM and, worse, some aren’t aware of what our members do. I always find this so incredibly frustrating because, as we pointed out repeatedly over the past few weeks, how will they deliver your manifesto promises if not through projects? How can they achieve anything notable without delivering it through the project profession?
APM is developing its own manifesto which will be launched in the run up to the UK General Election, but until then we’re focusing on influencing political party manifestos.
At the Liberal Democrat conference, we raised the issue of the obvious skills gap in project management. Nearly every sector is showing some kind of a shortage. APM’s qualifications and apprenticeships can help, as will our work with universities and student development, but these are long term solutions — recruitment and retention remains a major problem in the short term.
At the Conservative party conference, we saw the problems caused by this issue. We focused on net zero and project delivery — how will we get to net zero if not through projects? We were pleased to be joined on the panel by one of our corporate partners, Rolls Royce SMR, showing the link between our corporate partners and our public affairs work.
Lord Maude of Horsham, who is currently leading a review into civil service governance and accountability, praised the work of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) and advocated for business training for major project leaders. And he raised an important point about the differing roles played by policy and delivery, joking that “the problem is everyone wants to be Jeremy Heywood, not John Manzoni." I feel the focus on policy development over policy delivery will be a major focus of his review.
At the Labour party conference, we asked a deliberately provocative question, why do some government projects fail, and what can we do about it? At APM we focused on the latter question, leaving the panel’s Labour MPs and Mayor to talk about the former. I’m pleased that Professor Andrew Edkins joined us on the panel which illustrated the vital link between our academic research work under Gabriela Ramirez-Rivas and our public affairs influencing. And I was equally pleased that APM Board member Sheilina Somani could join us as well, bringing a wealth of practitioner knowledge to the table, focusing her contribution on the need for collaboration and inclusivity to get stakeholder buy-in.
We also delved into the political side of project delivery, which came to the forefront a few days before that event with the Prime Minister’s decision to cancel the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2. In our fringe event the day before the announcement, APM’s Chief Executive Professor Adam Boddison OBE mentioned the need for stability and consistency in order to give long term confidence to invest. We covered the HS2 decision in our newsfeed, reiterating that HS2 was still needed, but expressing support for the money being earmarked for other projects. Unfortunately, that support now appears to have been misplaced, with local news immediately finding holes in the Network North plan, including projects that already have full funding, others that had been cancelled and more than one that appeared to have already been built. By 9 October the Prime Minister had told the BBC that they were merely a “range of illustrative projects that could be funded.”
If we’re looking to build confidence in UK major projects, we need to see the consistency and stability Adam Boddison spoke about. Projects need to be long term, well thought through and able to survive political changes. HS2’s recent history is a real example of how political expediency can make investments riskier, damaging confidence.
Looking back through the conference guides, wondering how we got to this situation, it’s obvious that most people’s focus is on policy development; what should we deliver, whereas APM’s events were in the minority that focused on how you deliver.
If this month’s HS2 saga is anything to go by, it’s clear we need to see greater focus on the how part of policy implementation and delivery, as Lord Maude indicated to APM last week. Lessons must be learned about how the political decisions behind the project were handled. And soon too.
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