By Suzannah.Brecknell

24 Mar 2011

From this month, every big scheme run by Whitehall departments will be overseen by the Major Projects Authority. Suzannah Brecknell meets David Pitchford – the man charged with overseeing and improving your projects.

It’s no secret that government has not always been the best possible project manager: too many projects have begun without clearly defining the business case and anticipated outcomes, run years late, gone hugely over budget, and failed to deliver as expected. But a group of civil servants occupying a small part of one floor in the Treasury building hope to change this. Here sits the team making up the Major Projects Authority (MPA) – which will, from next month, have oversight of a portfolio of projects worth many hundreds of billions of pounds, and of immense strategic importance for the government.

The Cabinet Office set out plans to change the way large projects are managed across government in its business plan last year: the Efficiency and Reform Group would become a central authority for managing projects, it said, implementing a new reporting regime to allow a better overview of progress. And this is the job of the MPA, which was formally established in February by a prime ministerial mandate sent to all secretaries of state and permanent secretaries.

The mandate had four major areas, explains the authority’s executive director, David Pitchford (pictured above). First, to establish a comprehensive portfolio of the government’s major projects – defined currently as either projects which are above departmental expenditure limits and thus require approval from the Treasury; or those “of a particular interest to the government, whether it’s contentious or very high-value or very high reputational value”, says Pitchford.

This work has already begun prior to the MPA’s official ‘go live’ date of 1 April.
Secondly, the mandate also introduced a new approval process for major projects, which will mean that “In normal circumstances, the Treasury won’t issue a funding approval for a major project unless we’ve done the assurance on its business case,” says Pitchford.

Under the third part of the mandate, departments will be required to submit quarterly reports on the progress of major projects, including financial information validated by their finance chief, to the MPA; the authority will in turn report on the overall portfolio to ministers, the ERG, the Treasury and Number 10, and produce an annual report on the progress of major projects across government.

The authority will also have the power to carry out ongoing assurance work to ensure the project is running to time and budget. “If that is the case, then we will assist [departments] by declaring that; they will move forward and the project will be delivered,” says Pitchford. If the project is having difficulties, however, the MPA will have – under the final part of the mandate – the power to intervene to support the project and, ultimately, to recommend it be stopped or re-scoped.

Setting up a portfolio
The first task for the MPA has been to work with departments to create a list of major projects in each department, prioritised by cost and risk: the Government Major Project Portfolio (GMPP). “Prior to this there’s been no understanding, either centrally or, indeed, broadly within departments, of how many projects there are and where they are and how much they cost,” says Pitchford.

The Office of Government Commerce (of which Pitchford was the major projects director, until it was subsumed into the Efficiency and Reform Group) did produce a list of some major projects, on which it collected quarterly reports, but this was not comprehensive. In February 2010, according to a report by the National Audit Office, this portfolio included 42 projects with an annual expenditure of around £10.5bn and £200bn of forecasted total investment.

However, when Pitchford’s team undertook a major projects review last year, they considered 204 projects and “looked very closely” at 67 (making recommendations to stop two and re-scope about 20) – but even this doesn’t represent all the contents of the GMPP.
“As part of that process, we found more along the way; and I know that more have started since then,” says Pitchford, “but until we get the collaboration process going with departments, we won’t know how many there are.”

The process, he says “is to work out together [with departments] which [projects] we should concentrate on in the short- to mid-term. We won’t be requiring departments to report absolutely to the nth degree on every single thing that goes on: this is about the ones that we both agree that we need to focus on, or that the government has asked us to focus on.” As an example of the latter, Pitchford mentions that the MPA has been asked to oversee the “government side of the Olympics programme”, working with the culture department’s Olympics Executive to ensure that different agencies and departments are on track to deliver their responsibilities in good time.

Process for success
Establishing a comprehensive list of large and important projects is just the stepping stone to the MPA’s more fundamental role of helping to ensure that these projects succeed – that is, deliver specified outcomes on time and to budget. In part, this will mean helping to develop better project-management skills across Whitehall (of which more later), but underlying this is the need for better systems of assurance to approve and monitor projects.

A 2010 National Audit Office report on the assurance of high-risk projects praised progress made by the OGC to develop tools and systems to monitor large projects, but called for a new, mandatory system of assurance which would be based on better information, and could trigger interventions when needed. This, in essence, is what the MPA is providing.

At the first stage, new projects which qualify as major will need to develop an Integrated Assurance and Approval Plan (IAAP) before they receive Treasury approval. Existing projects which are included in the GMPP will also produce IAAPs, running from the present position until the end of the project. The IAAP system will ensure that, from the outset, projects have a system of assurance setting out key milestones at which the project must be reviewed and continued funding is assessed. They are widely used in the private sector, says Pitchford: “The trick is to focus much more on the start-up of projects than we currently do. The plan establishes the assurance and approvals regime from the start-up right through to the conclusion.”

Pitchford, who has experience of managing large projects in the private sector and the Australian government, returns a few times to the value of introducing private sector best practice to improve project management. “There are regular reports to the top of the shop – it goes to the board, and the project’s senior responsible officer (SRO) or project director will be held to account by the board for the progress of the project. We are hoping to do exactly that within Whitehall: to elevate the importance of the initial planning, sticking to the plan, and being held accountable for the performance,” he says.

The private sector has a greater “understanding and acceptance of the importance of effective programme- and project-management” (PPM), says Pitchford, because “there is much more of a bottom line analysis: you are held to account for the loss of the money if you don’t deliver the project.

“Within the civil service – and this is not just in the UK, but broadly – there’s a different approach [to PPM] and, to be honest, some of the approaches are that the project-management stuff is quite a pain in the neck because it’s so difficult.” Pitchford’s message – which the MPA will be promoting to departments who may be wary of encroachment on their projects – is that effective project management can improve not only your project outcomes, but your departmental bottom line and reputation.

But the MPA isn’t just about persuasion: a key new power for the authority will be the ability not only to regularly assess, but to intervene in projects. “When OGC was the carrier of this, it was an agent of assurance, and the only thing it could do was to make recommendations,” says Pitchford. “It’s different here: we have the power to intervene. That intervention will be done with departments, and with no surprises.”

A key intervention will be the ability to parachute in extra staff to support the departmental project team. They might need, for example, extra commercial or legal support because of a contract difficulty, says Pitchford, so “we will try to provide for them additional resources so that they can rescue the project or ensure that it stays on track”.

If these interventions fail to achieve the required results, the MPA will have the power to recommend stopping or re-scoping a particular project. Recommendations would be made through the Major Projects Review Group (MPRG) – a group of officials and private sector experts chaired by Andrew Hudson, the Treasury’s managing director of public services and growth. In these circumstances the MPA would submit recommendations to the MPRG, which would consider whether to pass these on to ministers.

Pitchford hopes these recommendations would have the support of departmental project teams: “In a perfect world, it would be hoped that that would be a joint recommendation [between the MPA and the department],” he says – but he adds that: “In the real world, there will be occasions where we will have to make recommendations that might not be in alignment with the thinking of the project.

“But really that’s what it’s all about: to have an oversight capability that makes meaningful recommendations. The critical element about that – and our guarantee – is that even if those recommendations are put, there will be no surprises. We will have worked through them with project teams and the whole undertaking will be very transparent.”

In government, it’s not just the internal politics of stepping on another department’s toes which need to be considered. Stopping or re-scoping high profile projects will have political implications for ministers, and the final decision to stop or carry on with projects will be coloured by this. The MPA, says Pitchford, will be aware of the political concerns, having been involved with the project’s planning from the very beginning, and will take them into account. But while ministers will still make the final decision, Pitchford says he hopes the MPA’s work will mean “those decisions will be much more informed than they have been in the past. That’s not meant to be critical of ministers – we simply hope to give them more information against which to base their response to our recommendations.”

In this together
As he explains the MPA and its aims, Pitchford uses the word collaboration time and time again: he wants to emphasise that departments should not fear the MPA, but see it as a tool to help them achieve their own policy aims and improve departmental performance. And he wants this collaboration to begin as early as possible: “We want to engage with departments as soon as [something] becomes a policy idea – not when it is already a project,” he says. In this way, his team can “make sure that the plan to translate the policy into a project, and then into project outcomes, is done against the best possible framework”.

To support this early engagement, the four deputy directors in the MPA will lead teams covering specific policy areas. Steve Mitchell will lead on defence and international projects; Richard Kelly will head up work on public services; David Blackhall will cover enterprise and growth; and Anne Turner will lead the examination of personal tax and welfare reform projects.

The teams will “engage with departments on a permanent basis” to “develop relationships, so that our people will know their people and we’ll know their projects”, says Pitchford. With departments coming to the MPA with ideas at an early stage of development, MPA staff will be able to advise them on what will be needed in order – for example – to produce the strongest possible business case. It will be, as you might expect from a team of professional project managers, “a very planned engagement”.

If policymakers are indeed to approach the MPA with their first set of ideas, it will be because they have been convinced of the importance of good project management to achieving their policy aims. It’s not new, of course, to argue that “good policy formulation can only be delivered by good policy implementation”, as Pitchford does: this message has been the focus of much civil service reform and many skills-building exercises in recent years. Yet the message, Pitchford suggests, has not got through. He believes there is still a need to build “at the very top of the management tree within departments, an understanding and an acceptance of the importance of that marriage [between policy and implementation].”

One way he hopes to do this – and also to improve the management of projects overall – is to encourage departments to appoint more experienced senior responsible owners (SROs): ideally, people at director-general level. This would mean that the SROs have better links to senior management and more “capability to interact with the top of the shop”; and, Pitchford believes, would also mean a much slower turnover of SROs, given that director-generals are not subject to the same pressures to move between roles for their career development as individuals at a lower grade.

Yet there is still a need to ensure that more civil servants get better at project-managing. “We are going to have to look very strongly at introducing a form of training that will expand this capability,” says Pitchford, noting that although people “baulk at the idea of formal training”, this is a requirement in many private companies. He gives the example of BP, which has a projects academy and “you will not be allowed to be a project director unless you’ve been through [that] academy. Now, we don’t have that facility, but we have to come up with some smart and innovative way to work out how we generate that capability improvement.” This is a challenge at a time of shrinking resources, he says; and while he does have some ideas on this, “there is no way I’m going to roll that out just now, because there’s a lot of thinking to be done.”

The first priority must be to “make certain that the operational aims of the Major Projects Authority are in place, and it can be shown that this is the right path and that departments have signed up for the journey,” he says. “But I will be talking to [departments] all the way along, and so will my people, about the importance of this marriage between policy formulation and policy implementation. That’s really what an effective project is all about.”

CV Highlights
Educated at Hobart High School and University of Tasmania, gaining a BA in administration. Early career dedicated to sporting pursuits – Australian football and water polo.
1988    Becomes chief executive of the Office of Governor of Tasmania
1997    Appointed chief executive officer, Australian Centenary of Federation Celebrations, 2001
2002    Appointed chief operating officer, Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games
2004    Appointed chief executive of the City of Melbourne
2008    Moves to Dubai as general manager of Palm Jumeirah – the largest land-reclamation project in the world
2010    Joins the Office of Government Commerce as executive director of major projects
2011    Becomes executive director of the newly-created Major Projects Authority

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