Civil Service chief - 'thousands of managers with new skills needed'

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Parliament’s Select Committee watchdog for public spending heard from 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), about the challenges facing the delivery of projects in the Civil Service.

In doing so, John Manzoni, head of the Civil Service, identified a critical shortfall in commercial and digital transformation skills which amounted to hundreds, even thousands, of jobs.

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The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) can be an intimidating inquisitor, but yesterday its members probed and poked at the issues in a deliberative way. The way the chair, Meg Hillier MP, introduced and conducted the session showed that the Committee wanted the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) to succeed.

They wanted comfort that the IPA was moving in the right direction and sought clarity over skills and accountability for projects in government departments.

Here is a brief summary of the main points made by Tony Meggs, who has been announced as a keynote speaker for the APM Project Management Conference 2016:

  • The recent merger of Infrastructure UK and the Major Projects Authority will help to strengthen the quality of future recommendations thanks to the skills and resources it brings together. It ends an overlap of common interests in projects.
  • He stressed that the IPA’s role is to drive better outcomes not accountable for implementation. The IPA was working on a methodology to judge its performance (that is, to measure more effectively improvement in projects). He stressed that this methodology needed the right baselines using a wider range of inputs and needed to measure benefits in a quantifiable way. Harmonisation of data was important to improving quality of analysis by the IPA. He expected to have better and more consistent metrics in place in the first half of 2017 for internal use within government. This methodology would then take time to bed in.
  • He responded to a number of questions about how the IPA worked with government departments. He said the IPA helped them to prioritise projects, for example by encouraging departments to use portfolio management. In particular, the IPA sought early involvement as policy is developed so projects were not announced by Ministers without assurance that they were deliverable. To enable this, he wanted the IPA to be able to identify projects before they were formed and capture them for a different type of review.
  • Tony Meggs stressed that creating understanding across government about project management was a key priority for the IPA, and he emphasised the importance of the Major Projects Leadership Academy and the identification of heads of the project profession in each Government department.
  • He felt that creating a demand for IPA advice to help officials anticipate the implementation of policy was more powerful than making early IPA’s involvement in projects mandatory. This meant getting much closer to policy makers in order to tackle the historic gap between those who draft policy and those who implement it.
  • He responded to questions about projects most at risk. Richard Bacon MP showed the Committee various slides from which he attempted to parse which projects, in which departments, were designated most at risk. Although Mr Bacon did not succeed in getting this clarified to his total satisfaction, Tony Meggs replied to a separate question that HS2, courts reform and shared services were the projects which gave him most concern.
  • He said that the aim was not have all green rated projects because that was not conceivable, given the complexity of major government projects. Project problems were caused by poor scoping in advance, limitations on resources and unrealistic timescales. Red-rated projects needed to be reset with major intervention to rescope as needed. Universal Credit was a good example of resetting, as it was a struggling project which was now back on course. 
  • The IPA was providing much clearer definition of benefits of projects which allows rigorous measurement against a framework, but he cautioned against over frequent monitoring of data which he felt would not add sufficient value. He thought it ought to be mandatory to have exit reviews of projects. The IPA was seeing signs of reduction in SRO (sponsor) churn. Latest data show that SRO’s were now staying in post on average for four years. In his view, project directors still moving too often.
  • Caroline Flint MP made the point that the public, as users and funders of services, needed to be considered to a greater extent and much earlier in the planning of major projects.

John Manzoni principally commented on the issue of skills and planning.

  • Single departmental plans would help project delivery and planning. They would show inputs and outputs for first time in memory. Edited versions of the plans would be published shortly.
  • The involvement of Treasury teams alongside Cabinet Office officials under the new IPA regime would give more teeth to the project assurance process.
  • Transformational projects needed different skills to infrastructure projects. In particular, the Civil Service needed to bring in hundreds of people with commercial skills and thousands in with digital skills. There was a critical shortage of these skills. The Civil Service needed to overcome atrophy in these skills over the last decade, thought this would raise immigration and other issues.
  • He accepted that the Civil Service needed a different blend of skills at the very top. Caroline Flint MP asked whether Permanent Secretaries should have experience of leading significant projects. Manzoni agreed in principle but said the existing field to recruit Permanent Secretaries would contract significantly if he did so. So he hedged deliberately.
  • He said that government projects need skilled leadership and proper accountability. It would be beneficial to promote people with a career anchor, such as project delivery, rather than generalists.
  • John Manzoni agreed with Richard Bacon that all MPs should have a basic understanding of project management before they become Ministers, though no direct undertaking was given to make this happen. 

This was a one-off session. We should expect the Committee to report with recommendations in due course. The APM continues to engage with the IPA, National Audit Office (NAO) and government departments to support their efforts to make the case for project delivery.

Julian Smith, Head of External Affairs, APM

Posted on 22nd Jan 2016
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