'Our job is to bring people and issues together': A guide to the project delivery profession

In this series, CSW provides a guide to professions and functions across the civil service. Each briefing looks at a different group, offering a glimpse of what they do and how they work with different parts of government

By Civil Service World

23 Nov 2023

 

Who are they?  Project delivery professionals support a huge variety of work across government, providing the structures and tools which take policies and services from plans to reality. The profession forms part of the wider project delivery function, which includes people from other professions – such as commercial, policy or digital – who are also needed to bring a project to life.

How many are there across government?  Just under 16,000, although the number of people involved in delivering projects through the wider function is over 26,000.

 What do they do?  Karina Singh (see box 1), director of function, profession & standards at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has overall responsibility for the project delivery profession, and describes the job of project delivery practitioners as “bringing together people and groups with a common outcome and using project delivery approaches and tools to create solutions to achieve that outcome”.

Under that broad description, project delivery roles can range from a project support officer – tasked with co-ordinating the reporting to ensure information about a project is up to date – to a portfolio manager who, among other things, makes sure that resources are allocated effectively over a number of projects in one organisation.

One newly created role is that of chief project delivery officers (CPDOs) in the biggest departments. Singh explains that these people help to ensure that there is a voice at senior level to take a strategic view of projects across the whole department, ensuring not only that the organisation has the right capability and capacity to deliver those projects but “pivoting the department to take advantage of the change” that projects will bring.

Together, these CPDOs form the Projects Council which sets an overall direction for the profession and addresses challenges across the system.

When was the profession founded?  In 2012 shortly after the Major Projects Authority, the predecessor of the IPA, was established to oversee large and important projects across government.

What are the priorities for the profession?  “The number one priority for me at the moment is building and recognising skills through accreditation,” Singh says, referring to a newly launched scheme which allows officials to assess and accredit their skills at four different levels – Foundation, Practitioner, Senior Practitioner and Master Practitioner. The IPA’s 2022-23 annual report said that 400 people had been accredited at the end of March 2023, and set out a goal to accredit 2,000 people within 18 months.

This process will make it easier for people to manage their careers, Singh says, but it also helps the function to understand the skills that exist in the civil service, making it easier to “get the right people to the right projects” and “create more fluidity across the system”.

Her second priority is developing skills for the future. “We’ve articulated what a project delivery skillset is in today’s world,” Singh explains, “but we know that data, AI, and automation will have a huge impact on us. We need to articulate and work out what that means for our people and make sure that they’ve got the skills they need to harness that opportunity both for their projects and for their careers.”

A final priority this year will be to simplify and consolidate the raft of existing guidance and good practice around project delivery into a new Teal Book – which Singh says will be a comprehensive guide for anyone who is delivering projects in the same way the Green Book is a guide for appraising projects and policies.

Which professions do they work most closely with?  Although they work most closely with commercial, analytical and digital colleagues, project delivery professionals work across almost every part of government so they can – and do – work with civil servants from any and no profession.

Given this, the profession has made what Singh describes as “a very deliberate choice” to create training and resources which aren’t just focused on its own members. “They are focused on anybody who’s interested in or has a hand in project delivery,” she says, “which is – when you look at government objectives around ‘delivery, delivery, delivery’ – everybody.”

Box 1: View from the top with Karina Singh, director of function, Infrastructure and Projects Authority

Like many in the profession, Singh did not start her career in an explicit project delivery role. In fact, she joined the civil service as a summer job after university, working in the accounts office in HM Customs and Excise at Heathrow airport.

She then worked in a range of policy, operational, change management and corporate roles in HMRC, but says that for the first 15 years of her career she “wouldn’t have described [herself] as a project delivery person at all”.

“It’s only the last 15 or so years that I’ve been full time in project delivery, and identified as a project delivery professional” she says, noting that although with hindsight she was delivering projects for almost all of her career, she only formally joined the profession when she realised all the tools and structures she was using to achieve her job came from project delivery.

Over the last 15 years, Singh worked on change delivery, leading transformation projects in HM Land Registry and Valuation Office Agency before becoming head of profession in the IPA last year. In her role as a change leader in those agencies she had worked closely with the three predecessors in this role and viewed it as “the most exciting role possible, because you’re making a difference to so many people.”

What does it take to be a good head of profession? “For me it’s about being open minded and remaining curious and having lots of conversations with people, both within the departments as well as connecting with peers in the private sector, academics and around the world,” she says, explaining that learning about changes in the sector is crucial.

She adds that it’s important to be “ambitious for what we can achieve as a profession – for the changes you can make at a system level and the difference that we can make and should be making to the way we are spending or investing and using taxpayer money to best effect so that we are creating the best possible outcome.”

 

What is a typical career path like?  Many people do enter the profession directly through routes like the Project Delivery Fast Stream, which is the third most popular fast stream scheme (by applications)      behind the generalist and diplomatic schemes, according to the IPA. However, Singh notes that there are just as many people who move into the profession mid-career.

“One of the great things about our profession is that you don’t need to have decided at the age of 16 what A levels you are going to take because you want to be a project delivery professional,” she says, explaining that moving into the profession from a different career background can be very valuable.

“We get people in at every stage, including at SCS level, who decide that they want to be part of the project delivery profession, which is absolutely great,” she says. “We love that because our job is to bring people and issues together. So the more understanding you have of different ways of looking at problems, the better the project delivery person you will be.”

Most likely to say?  Alicia Wilson, a project manager in the Ministry of Justice (see box 1), shares two key phrases which her team uses a lot and which reflect how they work: robust challenge and delivery at pace. Singh adds that she often tells colleagues graduating from leadership programmes that they are “building the future of the UK – the infrastructure, services and capabilities we are creating will be used 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now”. She adds that: “As project leaders we have the responsibility to ensure we are unlocking the social value of this investment, and building to meet the diverse needs of our citizens.”

Box 2: Frontline view with Alicia Wilson, project manager assigned to Rapid Deployment Cell Project, Ministry of Justice  

Alicia Wilson joined the Probation Service as a new graduate. After 12 years, she was looking for a new challenge. She wanted to stay working in the criminal justice system, and project delivery stood out because of its practical impact.  

“The fact that there’s a tangible output at the end of it is what attracted me to project delivery rather than policy or other areas of work,” she tells CSW.  

So, in 2022, she joined the MoJ’s Project Delivery Function as a project manager assigned to work on increasing capacity in prisons. She is now working as a senior project manager on a temporary promotion within the same programme.  

According to Wilson, a vital part of her job is stakeholder engagement – building, co-ordinating and managing relationships as well as pulling together perspectives and information from different interested parties. Alongside this she keeps an eye on progress towards the project’s key milestones as well as managing risks as they emerge. There is also a wider job of reporting up to ministers on the progress and deliverability of the project.

Explaining how her two roles have differed, she says being a senior project manager is more strategic and will involve her in overarching conversations and reporting right up the governance chain. A project manager, on the other hand, “is more on the ground, if you like – going out to sites, meeting with property sponsors and mobilisation managers. They have a better understanding of the day-to-day delivery at each site”.

Wilson’s proudest moment since joining the MoJ has been the completion of work at the first prison site in her project. “We went from contract award to delivering on site in eight months, so it was a really streamlined process that we managed to get through and deliver, and it was a huge achievement,” she says.  

Her advice for others considering a move into project delivery part way through their careers is to be confident that their skills will be useful in a new role. “I really didn’t think that I would be able to use any of my skill set from probation. Actually, it’s all very transferable,” she says.  

The key skill you’ll need, she adds, is good stakeholder management and an ability to build relationships. “People will always forgive you for not knowing the technicalities of something if you are approachable and reliable,” she says. “So I think having that good stakeholder relationship is invaluable – it’s the keystone, and everything else can be built on from there.”

 

How can you make their life easier?  For Singh, the message is simple – get them involved in your project as soon as possible.

“We know from lots and lots of academic research and lessons learned, that a project that has not been set up well will not deliver well,” she says. “Involve us early so that we can help you create some of the disciplines and methodologies you need to set up for success.”

If that isn’t possible, she says, because of resource constraints or other challenges, then “upskill yourself”. She points to resources like the Project Setup Kit and Project 101 which are available through the Government Project Delivery Hub.

How can they make your life easier?  Put simply, they can help with any part of your job that involves change, or creating something new. “We can help give you some of the structures and the clarity needed, assemble your stakeholders, to help you deliver your aims,” Singh says.

What does it take to be a good project delivery professional?  Singh lists three strengths that are useful across any project delivery role. Stakeholder engagement is the most important, followed by resilience, since “by definition we are changing the way we do things, so we are going to be pushing against boundaries,” she says.

 “We’re trying to get people to think differently; we’re trying to convince people to do things differently and you need to be quite resilient in yourself to make that happen.”

Finally, she says, you need a strong ability to solve problems, and to “remain curious and open minded” so that you can try new solutions rather than giving up when a project faces a knock-back.

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