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Yes Minister, Britain’s biggest projects do need a major overhaul

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Don’t be too surprised to see trainee project managers and their local MPs sharing pencil cases in lectures in the near future. The educating of all MPs in project management is one piece of industry reaction to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s (IPA’s) Annual Report on Major Projects published this summer.

Others are to halve the number of projects in the portfolio to improve quality and to make reporting and decision-making more accountable and transparent.

But before we look at those views, let’s have a few reminders of what the report said.

Traffic light system

There was certainly a fair amount of healthy news, with the government hailing its successful delivery of a best-ever 25 major projects over the previous 12 months. The IPA said that there are currently 184 major projects, with 95 joining and 36 leaving since the 2019 report.

Its traffic light system to outline delivery confidence found that there were seven projects in the red category, meaning that successful delivery appears unachievable. There were 44 amber/red projects, meaning successful delivery is in doubt, and 84 in amber, which means successful delivery appears feasible.

Only 12 were in green, meaning the projects are likely to come in on time, budget and quality.

As such, the government has determined there is a need to boost project leadership, capacity and expertise. This includes ensuring that all senior responsible owners (SROs) have the time, skills and support needed to deliver projects successfully, including IPA-led recruitment of expert major project leaders and ministerial and senior sponsor training.

Painting the Forth Rail Bridge

Professor Michael Bourne, director of the Government Project Leadership Programme at Cranfield University, says that between its programme and the Major Projects Leadership Academy at Saïd Business School (SBS), nearly 3,000 people have been trained in just seven years.

“Project leadership is not easy and there is a constant demand for it,” he says. “It’s like painting the Forth Rail Bridge in that you have to keep training because capacity is not as full as it should be. You need stamina and guts to be a project leader in government. We are trying to address the gap and doing a pretty good job.”

Part of that work is ensuring that project leaders know that they need to constantly respond to changes in projects. “They are not fixed, they evolve,” Bourne says. “Leaders have to live with what is going on.”

He praises the Orchestrating Major Projects Programme at SBS, which trains government ministers in project understanding, but believes more can be done.

“They are learning that when you come up with a policy, it is not always immediately deliverable. Project and change expertise is needed to make it happen,” he explains. “Personally, I believe you need to educate MPs before they become ministers. I’ve spoken to MPs, and they are keen. The earlier it is done the better.”

Like wading through treacle

Rhys Clyne, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, believes more civil servant expertise is also needed.

“The forthcoming spending review is an opportunity to ensure that departments have enough resource, including civil servants with the right skills and experience, to manage and deliver these projects effectively,” he states.

But, argues programme manager Ian Koenig, very little progress will be made if the ecosystem around public projects remains intact.

“SROs do need to improve but the structure they are in tends to lead to poor and slow decision-making. It is rife in government projects,” he says. “There is also a lack of transparency in reporting where stuff is marked finished when it clearly hasn’t been. The culture is about image rather than progress. It needs true independent reporting and monitoring.”

Accountability also needs to improve, argues Martin Samphire, director at 3pmxl. “They are doing all the right things with SROs,” he says. “But one area reports fail to mention is SRO accountability. Every government department wants to put their finger in a project’s pie. It is like wading through treacle.”

He says that on one recent government major project he mapped out an ‘accountability hierarchy’ where certain departments were removed from decision-making.

“They had no project accountability. They just made a lot of noise,” he says. “You need to streamline the decision-making process, which is something the vaccination programme did so well. How can we lift those learnings into normal practice?”

If you can’t finish it, end it

Clyne suggests reducing the size of the project portfolio might help.

“It is good news that the recent trend of worsening confidence ratings has been stabilised, and even slightly reversed, this year. The proportion of projects rated red or red/amber reduced from 34 per cent to 28 per cent, and those rated green or green/amber increased from 17 per cent to 22 per cent,” he says. “But by reducing the portfolio size, they can concentrate expert resource on managing a smaller number of higher priority projects effectively.”

Koenig agrees on going slimline.

“No experienced project manager believes there were only seven red projects, given their hi-tech nature and complexity,” he says. “But even having 44 amber projects would see you being fired in the private sector! Half those ambers should be cancelled. If you can’t finish stuff, end it.”

It is clear the government sees projects and the project profession’s expertise as a way forward out of the crisis. But it is equally obvious that major change needs to take place in project leadership and strategy if it wants to meet its goals around net zero and levelling up in the years ahead.

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