By Joshua.Chambers

13 Feb 2013

From helicopters to hospitals and new offices to the Olympic Park, civil servants are managing some colossal schemes. Joshua Chambers profiles the new training school designed to improve major project leadership

Civil service project leaders already have to wear many hats, from their traditional civil service bowler to their digital wizard’s cone and their departmental headgear (helmets at defence, surgical caps at the Department of Health). But now they’ll have to add a mortarboard to their collection. Under the Civil Service Reform Plan, all departments have agreed that by the end of next year ‘Senior Responsible Owners’ appointed to major projects must have passed through the government’s Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA), run in conjunction with Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.

The academy was established because, according to David Pitchford – the head of the government’s Major Projects Authority – Whitehall lacked world-class project leaders. “What has happened here over the last 25 years, and indeed in most western jurisdictions, is that there’s been a very strong trend to outsource project leadership to the consultancy sector – and that means you’re also outsourcing knowledge,” he says. “At the end of the project, the contractor will walk out with the money and the knowledge.”

The government wants project management skills to return to Whitehall – but it doesn’t just want to teach the technical know-how. “The difference is that we’re teaching people how to lead,” Pitchford says.

The academy will ensure that people responsible for major projects are able to cope with the particular stresses and strains of leading a big project in the public sector, where priorities can shift as governments, circumstances and ministers change.

It’s hoped that the academy will make a major difference. Currently, there are 208 major projects being run by government, with a total value in excess of £400bn. It’s vital that government doesn’t waste money on these investments, but it currently doesn’t have a very good track record. Only two years ago, Pitchford says, just 30 per cent of major projects were expected to deliver on time and on budget. “We’re now in excess of 65 per cent,” he adds; he hopes the MPLA’s training will increase that to an 85 per cent success rate. “It’s impossible to go for 100 per cent because it’s life, and we’ve got people involved, and people take decisions that impact adversely.”

So how do you train people to lead major projects? Dr Paul Chapman runs Oxford’s MSc in Major Programme Management, and is also director of the MPLA. Students attend three intensive, five-day courses, including lectures, workshops and seminars on leading major projects, while experts in the field visit the school to provide practical advice and experience. For example, the last cohort heard from Sir David Higgins, the chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, and Rob Holden, chief executive of the HS1 rail project, who visited the school to discuss the difficulties they’d faced and to pose challenging questions for students to consider. According to Chapman, Higgins told the course that in the early days of the Olympic project, his team felt it had met all of the functional requirements – but the Olympic Park “didn’t feel right. It wasn’t inspiring enough”. The timescale was tight and immovable, so Higgins was faced with a question of whether he should “tick all the boxes, or say: ‘London deserves something better’.” Ultimately, Higgins decided to go a step further and revisit the plans for the Olympic Park, producing the inspirational place we all saw on TV last year.

One of the key areas that the MPLA focuses on is how to get the best out of others: “How do you lead a large team of people? How do you inspire them? How do you get through the dark days?”, Chapman asks. There’s also a significant focus on how individuals “lead themselves”, he explains. “One of the things we’ve noticed is, almost to a person, [the students] are incredibly diligent and work long hours. We’ll ask them questions about how you can sustain this over time if the project you’re on is a three-, four-, five-year project.” At the beginning of the course, students undergo a 360-degree feedback process with input from their colleagues and bosses, including permanent secretaries and finance directors. “It really helps you understand your strengths and weaknesses,” says Adrian Baguley, one of the students on the course and the director of helicopters, defence equipment and support at the Ministry of Defence.

The MPLA also teaches commercial skills, to ensure that lessons are learned from the mistakes made in previous major projects. “One of the big lessons is making sure that we put rigour into the early phase of a project so that we’ve got realistic forecasts,” Baguley says. “That sounds easy, but when you’ve got a stakeholding community that wants [projects] faster and cheaper, there’s a leadership challenge to have the moral courage to talk about what is realistic.”

The course is part-time, which does make it challenging for the students, many of whom are simultaneously working on major projects. “It’s quite an intense commitment,” says Baguley, but “because it’s not a full-time residential course, it allows us to bring things back into the workplace as we go along.” Students also have a “heavyweight” list of reading to undertake before the course begins, and a series of academic assignments to write during the course, says Baguley’s fellow student, Ray Long – the director of business tax change at HMRC.

Facing these challenges alongside other civil servants can provide useful bonding experiences, especially given that participants are split into “action-learning sets” who meet up and work together. “You realise that we’re all facing similar challenges; you find a lot of common issues that come out,” Long says. He greatly appreciated “building a network of people with common experiences and skills” across departments.

At the end of the programme, there’s still the all-important assessment to pass. “That’s a decision made by a panel including academy directors, the chief executive of the MPA [Pitchford], and a permanent secretary,” Chapman explains. The panel considers participants’ assignments and evidence of their personal development, then the students do a presentation setting out their ability to lead major projects.

“It’s certainly a challenge. The health warning for everyone wanting to work on this is that it’s an intensive commitment; it’s quite a lot of work on top of your day job – but it’s great [personal] development,” Long says.

One cohort has already completed the course, while another is currently going through it. If the MPLA is successful, it may even reduce the amount of hats a civil servant must wear: major project leaders will no longer need to don their hard hats, because – it is hoped – things are far less likely to come crashing down around them.

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