Green light: IPA chief Nick Smallwood on the Covid response, building back better, and his Get To Green mantra

Nick Smallwood joined the Infrastructure and Projects Authority with a plan to improve project delivery across government. Despite the impact of coronavirus, it remains on track, he tells Richard Johnstone
Photo: IPA

By Richard Johnstone

17 Nov 2020

When the government’s top project delivery official first arrived in Whitehall, he brought with him a clear plan for how he wanted to oversee delivery of the country’s biggest infrastructure and policy projects.

Nick Smallwood soon became synonymous with his focus on his “three Ps” at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which he has led as chief executive since August 2019. The focus on people, performance and principles is intended to get the basics of project delivery right, as well as boosting skills and capability to deliver better in the future.

It is a fourth “P”, though, that has unexpectedly come to dominate Smallwood’s 2020, and that is the pandemic. Like so much else in government, the project delivery profession moved quickly to work on the coronavirus response, and Smallwood praises what he calls the “commendable” work of officials in helping develop everything from the Treasury’s economic support package to the Nightingale hospitals.

Project delivery officials have all faced “huge challenges to deliver quite a broad range of schemes and projects, and some pretty notable in size” since March, he says.

“That was done with a population who'd largely been working remotely at short notice, so I think the overall effort from government has just been absolutely outstanding.”

The IPA has been concentrating on supporting the construction industry, Smallwood says, to devise rules that could keep projects going. “From the very first week, we joined up with the Construction Leadership Council, and had a collaborative effort to help them understand what the industry site operating procedures needed to be, in order to comply with social-distancing guidelines.”

Despite these pressures, the original three Ps have not been left unattended to in 2020. The IPA has published a set of principles for successful project delivery in July, which was published alongside its annual report.

The report revealed a pre-coronavirus increase in red-rated projects across government from four in 2019 to 11 in 2020, and Smallwood says he sees “a huge opportunity to step up performance”.

The first of Smallwood’s three Ps is performance, which he says he included because when he joined government, its project portfolio looked “too red and too amber”. “We really should have an ambition to transform our performance and deliver public sector projects more consistently against the cost, schedule and benefits targets,” he adds.

A number of initiatives are underway to do this, including ongoing implementation of the recommendations from the Transforming Infrastructure Performance report, published in December 2017. In particular, Smallwood highlighted the focus on “smart construction” – using modern methods of construction, like off-site manufacturing – and sharing best practice more proactively, including to the supply chain to, in his words, “make it real”. This is accompanied by increased accreditation of officials involved in project delivery and – intriguingly – politicians too. The first ministers have taken part in a training programme on project delivery designed by the IPA and the Said Business School.

“We secured additional funding in the last spending round, to drive our agenda to really work on these issues: things like implementing a benchmarking hub, focusing on cost estimation, and driving the modern methods of construction. It's exciting times, driven by the fact that we've said that our current performance is not where it needs to be, and we want to do better.”

Both people and principles tie into unlocking this improved performance, with Smallwood highlighting under the former heading his plans to improve the training and accreditation of officials working on projects.

He praises the work of the government’s “ground-breaking” Major Projects Leadership Academy, which aims to improve the skills of those in senior project roles, and plans for this to be supplemented by “a tiered approach that helps assess and accredit them as they go through the careers to having those mastery skills that SRO [senior responsible owners who oversee major schemes] and project directors need”.

“So I think there's a huge opportunity to step up what we do in the people space.”

One of the long-standing aims of project management in government has been to extend the time that the SROs stay in place on major projects, to ensure leadership continuity.

This is another area where Smallwood is keen to make progress. Although he acknowledges that some officials “think that they can do a job for 18 months, two years, and then move on”, he says that the IPA has a “moral contract” to ask people to stay through particular milestones.

“We can have a conversation to ask whether SROs are prepared to work through to a key milestone, and I think point out to them the benefits of doing that – both to public delivery, but also to their careers.”

And he acknowledges this contribution needs to be recognised. “We're now looking at how we can introduce competency-based pay as a lever and vehicle to help in that space, and hopefully, we'll have some proposals on the table by early next year.”

This would be part of moves to use pay to better recognise project management skills, using a project management competence assessment and assurance framework.

“If you can work to that framework, and genuinely demonstrate that you've got people who have the competence and confidence and ability to deliver and you've accredited them, I would be pushing hard to differentiate their pay from others who don't have that assessment and accreditation in place at the same job level.”

“I think we've got to recognise that the UK government delivers some of the most complex and far-reaching projects of anyone in the world”

On principles, Smallwood has worked to set out the fundamentals of project delivery, which he admits government doesn’t always follow.

“There's a number of barriers there that I really think reflect what we don't do well as basics, and it was born out of really deep conversations with the heads of profession in the different departments. And I asked the question, what is it that we should be doing – that we're not doing – that are fundamentals and basics?

“And there’s some pretty basic things that you really have to get right there: getting your cost estimate correct before you set off; being clear on scope; doing the right level of work before you set off and approve projects; and things like cost estimating. We can go to the next level now of building deeper skills and knowledge of what good looks like.”

Many of these have been highlighted as key parts of good project delivery by Smallwood’s predecessors, and he acknowledges that while there are “fantastic processes in government, we need a bit more discipline to follow them”.

Why, then, does he think this doesn’t happen?

“I think we've got to recognise that the UK government delivers some of the most complex and far-reaching projects of anyone in the world. Typically, we've done that in complex governance structures, often with arm's-length bodies, sometimes with policy groups giving the delivery directly to the supply chain. I think we've got to do some work now to become what I will call a truly intelligent client plant, and really focus on what we need to know in government.”

Perhaps, he suggests, government has been too quick to outsource some of its project work, that has limited the development of in-house skills – a point echoed by Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew’s argument that the civil service has been “infantilised” by its overuse of consultants.

Smallwood doesn’t speak in those terms, instead saying that “perhaps we've been too quick to give [work] to others”.

He adds: “An example is that quite often we will go to consultants to do cost estimates for us, [but] I think we need a degree of cost-estimating skills and knowledge across government. We need to understand the basics, and understand what good looks like in terms of forecasting, so that we know when we're getting the right cost estimate on the table.”

What government has is some “really, really good documentation” on the issue, he says, but this has not translated into a “very deep and broad-reaching project-management framework”.

Work to create this is now underway as part of what he calls the IPA’s new Get To Green “mantra”.

The drive, he explains, means “thinking: what will it take to give a project a green rating? I'm really having some really deep conversations to better understand: what does that look like for an IT project? What will it look like for a Ministry of Defence project?

“[We’re going to] make sure that wherever you are in government, whatever level of project professional you are, you'll be able to access the project-management framework and get the information and knowledge and data that you need to do your day job better than you could before.”

Despite the impact of Covid, Smallwood says the project profession is “in a really, really great place to go on that journey”, highlighting the pledge by the prime minister Boris Johnson (not a man afraid of flagship infrastructure idea or twelve) to build back better.

Smallwood says he’s excited his IPA plans are backed by “not only No.10, but also by the permanent secretaries across the departments, by Alex Chisholm in the Cabinet Office”.

He adds: “With the ambitious agenda that this government has to use infrastructure as a vehicle to support the recovery of the economy, we see a huge opportunity now to drive our agenda to improve performance across the whole of the project landscape.

“If we're going to have very much a focus on infrastructure as a vehicle to help us recover from the economic crisis we find ourselves in. We need to build back better, greener and faster, then things need to change versus how we work today.”

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