‘Government got serious in the 2000s’: the history of civil service project management and delivery

Written by Colin Marrs on 14 June 2018

Infrastructure and Projects Authority chief Tony Meggs talks to Colin Marrs about how far the civil service has come since the pre-1970s Ministry of Works

Tony Meggs, Infrastructure and Projects Authority chief. Credit: Paul Heartfield

The Project Delivery Excellence category of the Civil Service Awards has been running in various forms since 2006. It celebrates outstanding contributions to the successful delivery of government projects, recognising the teams and individuals whose efforts shape lasting and valuable outcomes for society. But how has the landscape changed for those in the project delivery profession over time?

Managing project delivery in Whitehall has been a constantly evolving dance between centralisation and devolution. From the second world war to the early 1970s, a small team within the Ministry of Works oversaw major building projects before it was absorbed into the Department for the Environment. Then, during the 1980s and 90s, a drive to decentralise decision-making saw the dismantling of many central structures and the farming out of operational delivery to a new wave of executive agencies.

The 2000s saw the beginning of a reversal of this process, with a drive for greater efficiency by transferring many aspects of project management to new cross-government agencies. “There was this philosophy that you could make policy at the top and hand delivery over to someone to operationalise,” says Colin Talbot, professor of government at the University of Manchester. “At one point 85% of civil servants were working through agencies.”

This theory was soon reversed – many of the agencies created have now disappeared and those remaining have less autonomy than they once had. As Tony Meggs, chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), says, “The government started to get serious about project management in the 2000s.”

Meggs highlights the importance of the Office of Government Commerce, created in 2000 to support procurement decisions by public departments and agencies through policy and process guidance and the negotiation of overarching service and provision frameworks.

“We describe it as a ‘movement’. People who come out of the MPLA find their confidence around their skills and profession has greatly increased” – Tony Meggs

In 2001 the OGC introduced Gateway Project Reviews, which aimed to highlight risks and issues that could threaten individual projects. Meggs says that the fact the reviews are carried out by independent experts is vital. “No project system in world doesn’t rely on independent assurance,” he adds. “People tend to fall in love with the taste of their own whisky.”

The introduction in 2014 of clearer rules on the accountability of senior responsible officers has improved project delivery in recent years, Meggs adds. “Now the SRO has to be appointed by myself and a permanent secretary and is responsible directly to Parliament. The SRO role existed before but frankly it was poorly defined and unclear who they were responsible to. The clarification of the role has had a focusing effect on the minds of all involved.”

In 2012, the Major Projects Leadership Academy was created to provide academic and vocational training to senior civil servants working in the project profession. “I think it has been a huge step forward,” says Meggs. “It has provided a common language around projects throughout government. And it has created a network of people who support each other. We describe it as a ‘movement’. People who come out of the MPLA find their confidence around their skills and profession has greatly increased.”

Meggs also cites the 2016 formation of his own body – the IPA – as key in helping build capacity and de-risking the largest projects carried out by government. The IPA’s experts in infrastructure, project delivery and project finance work with government departments and industry to provide advice and support on major projects.

“We don’t deliver a damned thing when it comes to projects – we are in the service of the people who do,” says Meggs. Again, he says, the approach is being refined and improved with experience. He says: “We have recently provided people across the whole of government with a clearer definition of 17 different roles in the project profession.”

In addition, the IPA is introducing a new set of standards to guide the work of the 10,000 civil servants who the chief exec says have been identified as project professionals. He says: “We are doing more and more to join things up across government. The standards show how to operate a portfolio, a programme and a project.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the creation of these new processes and organisations at the centre of Whitehall are not an obstacle to devolved decision-making in project management, Meggs says. “We have created a Projects Council which gathers directors general from every department who have responsibility for the project function. This is an attempt to create a collective endeavour for project management rather than someone at the centre dictating things. We intend to devolve more assurance out as departments get better and can demonstrate successful project delivery.”

And Meggs is realistic about the continuing challenge of the tension between central direction and departmental autonomy, saying that it is an issue that needs to be constantly monitored and managed. But his direction is clear: “My model for the future – our primary objective – is to make departments and individual entities so proficient at doing projects that the centre will get smaller. It will never go away, but it will get smaller.”

Talbot is more cautious about the chances of this happening, claiming that the demands of preparing for Brexit make more central control likely. He says: “It is like the second world war when everything had to be centralised to get anything done. The difference was that then there was a lot of preparation beforehand and huge national unity.”

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