By Suzannah.Brecknell

30 Sep 2013

Government’s Major Projects Portfolio is regularly assessed to look for warning signs that indicate a programme is going awry. CSW has researched key projects in four departments to gauge the performance of civil service project managers.

Following the progress of large government projects is sometimes like watching a car crash in slow motion – people can spot the danger signs, but they’re powerless to stop the collision. At other times – most obviously the London 2012 Olympics – it’s more like watching an off-road race, crossing your fingers as the cars dip and swerve through obstacles to a triumphant finish. Whatever their outcome, though, few major government projects run smoothly. As the first annual review from the government’s Major Projects Authority (MPA) said, the government’s big projects are operating with “an extremely high degree of risk and complexity, against ambitious timeframes, and are frequently delivering initiatives that have no global precedent.”

The MPA acts as a sort of Driving Standards Agency and traffic police unit for the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP). It sets and enforces standards through its assurance and approval process; assesses progress to see whether a project is on course for success; and has the power to halt or redirect projects heading for a crash. It even uses traffic lights, in the form of a Red-Amber-Green (RAG) rating system that shows whether it believes a project is on track. These ratings are based on ‘Delivery Confidence Assessments’, which summarise a project’s current progress and consider a range of factors that will determine its fate – such as timescales, budgets, relationships with suppliers, and external influences such as regulatory timetables.

The government published these traffic light ratings for almost all of the projects in the GMPP alongside the MPA’s first annual report, in May 2013. (Of the 191 projects, 21 were exempted from publication, mainly for reasons of commercial sensitivity.) The ratings in the report date back to September 2012, and appear alongside departmental narratives explaining how civil servants have since reacted to the MPA’s findings. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in the foreword to the report that “a tradition of Whitehall secrecy is being overturned. And while previous governments buried problems under the carpet, we are striving to be more open.”

On the following pages, CSW sets out to explore the problems – and triumphs – within the GMPP through 12 case studies, taken from the four departments managing the largest proportions of the portfolio’s total value (except the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which has had all but one of its projects exempted from publication). For each department, we’ve chosen projects representing a range of ratings and project types, and have sought to draw out lessons for civil servants in other departments.

One common theme that emerges is the need to be honest, both in setting outcomes and in assessing progress as delivery rolls on. In several instances, civil servants and contractors talk of having been “too optimistic” as projects or procurements began; in three departments, the scrutiny of the National Audit Office (NAO) and MPA have helped to put struggling projects back on track.

The case studies also illustrate the problems faced by projects operating in a political context: timescales may be overly shaped by political goals, and priorities can shift with policy changes. But the best projects manage to either step back from or mitigate these risks: in two of our green-rated projects, leaders talk about the importance of setting clear objectives and sticking to them as far as possible, while other leaders emphasise the importance of being prepared to reassess objectives realistically as the environment changes.

Major projects are often dependent on external parties for their success – not just suppliers, but partner organisations, including other public bodies. In two of our green-rated case studies, project leaders cite a very close working relationship with suppliers as a key factor in their success, while in the amber-rated Enabling Retirement Savings Programme success will largely be determined by how well civil servants support businesses to communicate and deliver pension reforms.

The projects that CSW has investigated reveal the scope and complexity of the government’s Major Project Portfolio – from combining six benefits systems to connecting up our health services; from rebuilding defence communications to expanding the UK’s busiest road. It’s clear that managing these projects isn’t easy, but it is hugely important: they should be seen not simply as major technological, logistical and procurement exercises, but as the tools with which the government hopes to realise its ambitions for our country.

Read the most recent articles written by Suzannah.Brecknell - WATCH: how well prepared was Turkey for the coronavirus crisis?

Share this page