Tony Meggs interview: Infrastructure chief on improving delivery and getting project management professionals into Whitehall's most senior roles

Written by Richard Johnstone on 25 July 2017 in Interview
Interview

After a career at the top of industry, Tony Meggs joined the civil service to lead Whitehall’s work on project management. He speaks to Richard Johnstone about improving delivery across government and his ambitions for the profession

Tony Meggs speaks to CSW in the Treasury Photo: Paul Heartfield

Tony Meggs lives project management. This may seem like an obvious quality for chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Author ity, but after working to keep Whitehall’s most high-profile and difficult initiatives – from highspeed rail and aircraft carriers to Universal Credit – running smoothly, Meggs supervises a scheme of his own in his spare time.

“We have a derelict house in Suffolk where we go at the weekends and have a lifelong project to prevent it from collapsing in a big heap, so we are working on that,” he says of his spare time with his family. “It has some historical resonances, and looking after it, and actually making it work properly, provides a sense of great satisfaction.”

He jokes that the management on his own project is poor – comparing it to the proverbial “cobbler’s children” who go without shoes. And, unlike what he works on in government, “the schedule is infinite, as is the cost”.


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Meggs, though, has built his career doing projects, starting with a job running electronic instruments down coal exploration wells for oil and gas firm BPP in Indonesia, before rising to be the head of technology at BP. In this role, he worked closely with two other alumni of the blue chip oil giant – civil service chief executive John Manzoni and former government lead non-executive director Lord Browne.

Indeed, Meggs’s first role in government was as successor to Manzoni as the chief executive of the then Major Projects Authority – a job he took on in May 2015 before becoming head of the IPA following a merger with Infrastructure UK in January 2016.

The IPA is responsible for providing support and advice, as well as external examination, of the government’s major projects portfolio, which at any one time numbers around 150 schemes. Initiatives that have fallen under Meggs’s watchful gaze in recent years are as diverse as the introduction of new pension arrangements for civil servants to construction of the UK’s new polar research vessel – the ship infamously not known as Boaty McBoatface.

Speaking to CSW from the IPA’s base in the Treasury, Meggs is keen to stress that it is the departments and agencies of government, together with private sector contractors, that actually undertake the projects, with the IPA (an agency of the Treasury and the Cabinet Office) providing support: “We are just there to help make it as good as it can be,” he says.

Ahead of the IPA’s latest annual report, set to be published this month, Meggs says there has been a “steady improvement” in implementation.

This will build upon the progress made in recent years, reflected in the IPA’s traffic light grading system for project health, where green means successful delivery appears highly likely, amber that significant issues already exist and red means successful delivery appears unachievable. The 2015-16 report found the number of schemes rated red or amber/red – the two highest risk ratings – had fallen from 48 to 44.

“I want to emphasise the point that it is the departments and the industry that delivers this stuff and we just want to be there to make sure these projects are successful,” he says.

The IPA may not be on the implementation frontline, but its role is a crucial one. It provides assurance for project plans as well as expert support throughout delivery, including financial and commercial expertise for some of the most difficult things being attempted in Whitehall.

Catching up with Meggs’s old boss and former BP chief executive Lord Browne by phone, it soon becomes apparent that the IPA chief’s skills are highly suited to the role.

“He worked for me for many years at BP,” Browne tells CSW.  “He was a very good engineer and, earlier in my career, I tried to recruit him and he decided to join Exxon instead. Eventually we got him through an acquisition. He ended up as the head of the technology unit.

“He’s very good in that he’s an engineer and also a businessman, and he understands how engineers and scientists work together. In the major projects work, that is exactly the combination needed. Major projects in government have to fulfil a policy, not, as in business, generate profits. But they do have to be done in a way that is efficiently enacted, and in a way that bears comparison with similar activities happening elsewhere in the world.”

How the IPA does this exactly will vary from project to project, but Meggs draws out principles that unite its seemingly disparate portfolio.

“I would say at a high level the principles are the same,” Meggs says. “At a high level, you need to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. That is not always easy in big programmes – it sounds straightforward but it is not. “

You need to align your stakeholders, you need to get good leadership in the programme, you need to get the right resources and the right people engaged, and you need a plan that is realistic and achievable.”

The differences come in the implementation. “If you are building a railway or a road, you can tell what it takes. You have a pretty clear idea of how much concrete you need or how many miles of track, and how long that will take,” he says. “But if you’re doing a major change programme, it’s often very difficult to judge exactly what it’s going to take.” These projects often face great uncertainty. “Ministers might decide to make policy changes in the middle of the implementation process, so in a way it’s much more difficult,” he says. “You could say that building a train line is a piece of cake, changing the way that millions and millions of people get their benefits paid is fantastically complicated.”

As such, one of Meggs’s priorities is what he calls “early intervention” to help reduce that uncertainty and ensure policy implementation gets off on the right foot.

“Too often in the past, with the government’s major projects, we have become engaged with them when they are already well underway,” he says. “And big projects are like a supertanker – once they’re headed in a particular direction it’s quite difficult to shift them.

“The time to get them on the right track, or heading in the right direction, is as early as possible in the lifetime of the project. So more and more of our energy and effort now is focused on how projects are set up.” As part of this drive, a “development pool” of potential projects has been created. This list is made up of plans “that have been conceived out of new policy ideas but which are not yet proper projects”, says Meggs, and this led the IPA to be poring over party election manifestos to get this discipline instilled early.

In the longer term, Meggs’s aim is to get project management professionals involved at the start when major decisions are taken.

“We are moving further and further upstream and we will be really happy when ministers ask for our advice at the same time as they ask for the policy advice. That’s our ambition.”

Browne agrees such an approach would be beneficial in Whitehall. “The thing about government projects is sometimes they are specified in haste and therefore disappoint on delivery, as no-one actually thinks about what they’ve got to do when an announcement is made. Then someone’s lumbered with delivering it – and a project that was going to cost £1bn ends up costing £5bn. You have to think very carefully about how to manage that process, and I think Tony is good at that.”

Brexit is one of the more recent, and perhaps the most high-profile, example of where this approach could be applied. Meggs says the IPA has worked to get the UK’s exit from the EU recognised as a complex major programme, and helped the Department for Exiting the European Union introduce programme management discipline and systems.

It has all the characteristics of a major scheme, he notes. “You need the skills and capability to manage it like a good programme. You need to be able to coordinate many, many different activities on many fronts, you need to do everything you can to align the stakeholders and you need to understand the critical path – what are the absolutely vital things that you have to get done to be successful?”

However, Meggs acknowledges two things make it “extremely unusual” – the massive scope of the endeavour and the fact that even the intended outcome is certain to change throughout the negotiations. “That makes it very, very challenging compared to a normal programme,” he says. “The boundaries are changing all the time, so you need to be very agile indeed.”

Yet these are the kind of challenges Meggs thrives on. Asked about the favourite project of his career, he names (after some prodding) his first major one – developing the North Sea gas field known as Sean in the 1980s, which went on to become the most profitable in the sea’s southern region.

“We are moving further and further upstream and we will be really happy when ministers ask for our advice at the same time as they ask for the policy advice. That’s our ambition”

But he insists he is prouder ensuring project management systems work than of one particular scheme.

“I’m more interested in the system – the people, the process, the environment, all the things that you have to do to create a success,” he says. “When something works and you change the way that a service is delivered to the public, or you get a piece of infrastructure built, or a new oil platform, of course you feel good about that. But I would feel even better if all of our projects were doing what we said they were going to do, and all of our people were really well-trained experts, and our ability to deliver good projects in government was the best in the world.”

Alongside getting projects set up right, Meggs’s other key to success is the quality of the management team. “You get those two things right and you can massively increase the chances of a successful outcome.”

To improve project management, the IPA leads the Major Projects Leadership Academy to train civil servants working on those top schemes, modelled on the academy Meggs developed at BP. “I was very proud to be the co-founder of the projects academy at BP and at the beginning of the Major Projects Leadership Academy [in 2012], although I was not in government at the time, we did have some conversations as it was being initiated.

“Our mantra is great project leaders deliver great projects – and the project leadership academy is our effort to make that true.”

This academy, coupled with the Project Leadership Programme that in 2014 extended the principles of the MPLA to those working outside the top schemes, is creating what Meggs calls a “critical mass” of trained major project leaders across Whitehall.

“When you get more than a handful of people who have all had the same training and background together in a department then things start to change,” he says. “The whole department then starts to understand better what it takes to be successful in projects, so I think that community spirit is building.”

Other key IPA priorities include creating market confidence in government so that suppliers know what is planned, and improving performance measurement and management (see below).

Meggs on… measuring success

Performance measurement is one of the key areas where Whitehall can learn from industry, Meggs says. He advocates “a much more analytical approach to understanding the outcomes of our projects and how they have performed”. Often, he says, these analyses will be uncomfortable– as they were when high-profile schemes like government shared services and the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers were given red ratings, or when Universal Credit was reset.

“But it is only by understanding performance that you can understand what went wrong,” he says.

He also wants more benchmarking. “At BP we would never have got approval for a project unless we could show that we had benchmarked it against other projects of that nature and were able to demonstrate it was highly competitive in terms of cost and schedule.”

It is more difficult to get comparators for policy reforms, but he says it can be done.

“Let’s take courts reform as an example. We did do some benchmarking on that – consultants went out and looked at what people around the world had achieved in court reform, digitisation etc. By doing that we were able to recalibrate the courts reform programme on a more realistic basis, based on what we’d learned.”


Meggs says this work to boost the project management profession has created “a lot of real interest” in the discipline across the civil service, but he acknowledges it is “not perfect”.

“I would say that in the civil service there is still a pecking order and this is an organisation that tends to look at the policy profession as the primus inter pares. I think that is slowly shifting.”

Indeed, while the IPA’s success will be measured in getting things done – “at the end of the day there is really only one measure: do we get better at delivering what we say we are going to deliver, when we say we’re going to deliver it, for the cost that we said, and to world class standards” – Meggs has a secondary ambition for his Whitehall cohort.

“Some of our best project leaders are policy folks who have kind of gone over to the dark side,” he says. “I would love to see the day when a permanent secretary in the civil service claims with pride to be a project delivery professional. And that day will come – maybe not in my lifetime – but it will come.”

Until then, the IPA will work to solve what Meggs calls Whitehall’s “hairiest” problems. And it will be from “a very privileged position”.

“Not only do we get to work on all this fantastic stuff that is doing good things for the country, but we are, in a sense, expected to be independent minded, saying things that other people don’t necessarily want to hear.

“So I think part of my role is to help other people when they are having their Yes, Minister moments. It is our job to tell the truth to power, that is where we add the most value. We don’t say, ‘No minister’, we just say, ‘Maybe you should just reconsider when that can be done by, minister’.”

Meggs on… pay and keeping project leaders in post

The IPA’s annual report draws attention to efforts to get project leaders – or senior responsible owners – to stay in charge of schemes for longer. Pay has been a factor here. Meggs says the “slow but steady improvement” in keeping SROs in post for an average of three to three and a half years is “still not as long as I’d like, but it is definitely in the right direction”. There are special pay allowances that the IPA can use to encourage people to stay in jobs, but Whitehall still pays less than the best people could earn elsewhere, Meggs says. Although government is attractive – the jobs are interesting and challenging “on a different scale” – Meggs says he will seek to close this salary differential “because having the right people is absolutely critical”. This could be on a similar basis to pay reforms introduced for the Government Commercial Organisation, which employs senior commercial specialists in the civil service on enhanced pay and terms.

 

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Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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