Q & A with Patricia Schwerzel, account leader global health, Mott Macdonald
International Project Management Day takes place on Thursday 5 November, and here APM speaks to Patricia about her role managing health programmes across Africa. Patricia is currently the SHINE Supply project director, a project which falls under the Somali Health and Nutrition Programme (SHINE) umbrella.
Patricia is an experienced global health expert with 30 years’ experience of working in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors and lived 22 years in East Africa. Her experience lies in programme management, organisational development, institutional development, human resource management and sector programme design and evaluation (Health and Education) and extensive consultancy experience throughout Somalia, South Sudan and Eastern and Southern Africa.
Over the past 20 years, she has focussed on sustained management of health and education projects for marginalised populations, especially in post-conflict and fragile states (Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia).
Since the pandemic, how have you and your team had to adapt to the changes, especially working in the fragile environments of developing countries?
The main complications have obviously been travelling, and not being on the ground to meet our national team members and stakeholders out in Somalia. Much of the work we do in delivering the project involves meeting face to face with people, such as our national partners and contacts at the Ministry of Health - not being able to sit down and communicate directly has been a challenge. But adaptability and communication are key in this situation. We have trusted and reliable partners on the ground. The rest of the team is working remotely. We have set up daily and weekly calls to ensure that everyone is involved in a continued dialogue and communicating.
What inspires you about your job and the projects you have worked on?
I started as a public health nurse working with women and children in remote areas of Africa. Having lived in remote African communities, you get to know people personally and see and experience the problems they are facing, such as access to good services. Seeing and experiencing these challenges is what continues to drive me in the projects I now manage, such as our current programme in Somalia. In managing large programmes, it can be easy to focus on the systems and procedures and protocols, and leave the human dynamic part of out of sight, but it is important to put this at the forefront.
What skills do you need to be successful leader in projects and how do you think the project profession needs to change for the future, in terms of the skills you need to do the job?
You need to be professional, dedicated, committed and skilled in your profession. That means keeping your skills and expertise up to a level of where they need to be.
In the projects we manage in Africa, communication is vital to understand what is happening on the ground, which involves listening to the ministries, stakeholders and communities, in order to understand the dynamics of the situation, political economy, policy changes and what is happening behind the scenes. Interaction, communication and continued dialogue is key in this process, you cannot work in isolation. You need to be accessible and reaching out to people, especially in the current situation, communication is so important. If not, the project will lose direction on where it needs to go.
From your experience, what project would you hold as an example of how to do a project well and why?
A project that I have most admired is when I managed the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) -funded girls’ education programme in South Sudan, a large £60 million project which started in 2013 and which currently is in its second phase. This is a transformational programme bringing a significant change to young people. We managed to get cash transfers to allow young girls to stay in school, and supporting with grants to improve schools and teacher training. We also worked with BBC Media Action to expand a broadcast network on girls’ education in the country. This project has been continued for another six years which is absolutely great to see.
In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers to change for project professionals in your sector?
I don’t see them as barriers as such, as I am always looking beyond barriers! Much of what I do experience is addressing the potential risks and claims related to the project. There is much more focus on contract clauses and consultants having insurances for public liability etc.
The process has become more risk-averse at managerial level than it was years ago - there are many more layers in the system to get through before getting an approval. As a project manager, you must think through how to address all the barriers and how to work your way through it.
It also differs from company to company, a large company like Mott MacDonald has different systems and procedures in place, whereas a smaller firm may not have so many.
Do you think we are starting to see an adequate pipeline of young people and women coming into the profession, particularly projects in the healthcare sector?
If you want to work in international programmes such as the SHINE Supply project we are delivering in Somalia, it is important that you get the right international experience and an understanding of working in fragile environments, and the management of a project in situ.
For young people, working abroad can be a challenge but at the same time a rich experience. There is often a more restricted way of living, such as not being able to socialise and living in a more isolated setting. In many fragile settings there is the challenge of insecurity, which, especially for women, can be a challenge. In our team we have more national males working on the project, and more international women. It would be good to see more women on the team at a managerial level.
How do you manage the health and wellbeing of your team?
We hold daily and weekly calls and monitor the wellbeing of the team. We regularly observe that people are getting tired or stressed. The workload is significant and during the COVID-19 crisis it is even more difficult. For example, one of our medical doctors recently experienced a high level of stress as he had to stay in an isolated situation which affected him physically and mentally. We relocated him to his home area which really helped his wellbeing. We understand that if things get too high pressured and complex that people need to take some time off to re-energise. It is important that we monitor the team’s wellbeing and look for any signs of stress that needs to be addressed. We provide the flexibility and support where needed.
More from Patricia
Patricia was among the presenters at APM’s recent Think Differently event, where she spoke about adaptable programme management in fragile settings. You can watch the recording of her session here.