By Colin Marrs

21 Dec 2015

What skills and capabilities are required for overseeing major government projects – and is there a clear enough career path for project managers in the civil service? Colin Marrs reports from a recent CSW round table

Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee last year, John Manzoni, who was then the chief executive of the Major Projects Authority, was blunt. “The fact is that a young person coming into the civil service cannot, because of the structures that we have got, spend their life building delivery experience,” he said. “We do not have a strong delivery profession, which is, by the way, my first priority to build.”

Project management is fast becoming one of the most vital competencies in government – schemes such as the Major Projects Authority (MPA), Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA) and Project Leadership Programme (PLP) are all aimed at improving civil service capability. It is, however, a challenging task. Project management it is not a single discipline and it involves a number of interlocked abilities – procurement, change management, cost negotiation, team building and conflict resolution. 

Manzoni told MPs that realising his goal of an improved project delivery function is “a journey”. Recently, Civil Service World, in conjunction with the Project Management Institute (PMI), gathered some of the senior civil servants travelling together on that journey. A round table discussion in the heart of Whitehall assessed lessons learnt so far, and chewed over some of the challenges remaining to the profession in an era when all civil servants are increasingly expected to do more with less.

Measuring up

Notoriously, the failure rate for major projects – across both private and public sectors – is eye-wateringly high. But one example frequently held up as a model of project delivery is the Olympic Games. London’s 2012 jamboree is widely regarded as a Whitehall success story, and those gathered round the table agreed that the event’s fixed deadline and pressure from an expectant world sharpened minds. Steve Edwards, government relations manager at PMI, said: “It wasn’t really an option to have a 2013 London Olympics, there had to be a 2012 Olympics and so it had to be delivered on time.”

The political importance of delivering the Games on schedule led to a “laser focus” from ministers and senior civil servants to drive delivery, according to James Young, Strategic Defence and Security Review programme manager at the Ministry of Defence. “That in itself allows you to quickly get to the heart of any risks that are emerging, or take decisions around things that might delay or challenge the delivery,” he said.

However, some questioned whether the Olympics should be termed an unequivocally successful project. Terri Harrington, portfolio insight and project delivery communities lead at the MPA, said: “If you looked at the estimates of cost at the very beginning, clearly they were adrift. Now, you could be polite and say they were re-baselined or you could say the budgets were different. With another project you might not be quite so polite in how you describe it if the budgets change.” Julie Black, associate director of Ofgem’s project management group, added that “every single Olympics has always been criticised for the legacy part of it – for not delivering the things that it said it would deliver”.

The Olympics discussion neatly demonstrates one of the most knotty problems faced by those responsible for delivering major projects – measurement of success. “The private sector has it easy,” according to Craig Killough, vice president of organisation markets at PMI. “It is earnings per share on quarterly profits. Everything is driven by the almighty pound. In the public sector it’s much more difficult because the government or the public sector organisation we’re talking about has many masters and their stakeholders are myriad.”

To Vanessa Hudson, P3 principal in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory portfolio office, pointed out the difficulty of demonstrating tangible benefits from her work delivering science and technology (S&T) solutions into major projects. “When a minister says, ‘What impact is S&T having?’ it’s quite difficult to just say ‘Well, actually we fed into this programme, and this programme is now delivered, and it’s been measured, so we’ve contributed’ – it’s quite a complex system.”

Harrington described the traditional “iron triangle” used to measure major project outcomes – time, cost and quality – and wondered whether it was fit for purpose within the public sector. “We tend to get very hung up on it but in a recent ministerial workshop that the MPA runs the ministers were actually asking ‘Well what about the project impact? What about the impact on the citizen? How are you measuring the impact on the citizen?’”

Changing the organisational structure

If only defining outcomes properly and adopting perfect performance indicators could assure project success. In the real world, organisational structures, culture and staff competency can all affect outcomes. Steve Sumitomo-Wyatt, assistant director of detention projects in the general property division at the Home Office, identified staff churn as a major factor in weakening some projects. “Every two to three years the senior leadership can change, along with a variety of different stakeholders and customers changing continually,” he said. “You get this culture of establishing things but never actually following them through.”

This issue has been on the MPA’s radar for some time, Harrington said, with a number of remedial actions now in place. “Senior responsible officers (SROs) now have appointment letters and quite often those will say when their tenure ends – which should coincide with at least a relevant part in the project,” she said. “If you’ve got a 35 year project you can’t expect an SRO to stay that long, they’d be very old. But when a department changes an SRO or a programme director we ask why and we have a say in who’s appointed to replace them as well.”

Progress can also be stymied by contrary impulses at the corporate governance level, according to Colin Dingwall, costings programme lead at NHS regulator Monitor. “On the one hand you must deliver and you are held accountable and often brought before the board to be held personally accountable and that’s fine,” he said. “But equally, in some cases there is a completely contrary set of drivers around how people and resources are managed, and recruitment policy, some of which is from the centre.”

This, he said, can lead to these managers facing difficult decisions. “I have been in positions where I have essentially had to ask, ‘Which is more important? That we adhere to this particular set of policy drivers or having to recruit people to get stuff done?” he said. “And you’ve got to act selfishly in your own interests.” The problem, created by in-built systemic tensions, can only be resolved at the very top, he said.

Similarly, efforts are also needed to ensure those working in the project delivery profession communicate properly with their policy counterparts who instigate major projects. “Sometimes there hasn’t been a credible process to actually underpin why we are doing this particular thing and for what reason,” said Eike Ndiwini-Miller, future Road Investment Strategy policy development lead at the Department for Transport. “If you can explain the policy reasons, it becomes much easier to define the project and then to understand what success might look like,” she said.

By definition, projects have a finite life. Because of their temporary nature, project management offices established to focus on a particular project can sometimes find themselves detached from wider business drivers, Ofgem’s Black argued. “I’m becoming more and more convinced that a project management office will start to get quite isolated and won’t be able to have much of an influence. I think we need to be careful we don’t just get down the rabbit hole of the temporary organisation – we need to think about the permanent organisation.”

Training the leaders

But navigating contradictory priorities will remain an inherent part of a project manager’s job, according to some round the table. Jason De Bono, from the Cabinet Office’s Commercial Models programme, said: “You need to have a mixture of project and management skills – but also policy, communications, and politics as well. “Your end goal is not only to deliver it on time and to budget but actually [to make sure it] meets outcomes, satisfies what ministers are looking for and doesn’t get destroyed in the media. It’s having those people skills to marry all those various bits together.”

The MPLA and PLP programmes already recognise the need to train project managers in a wide set of skills, according to Killough. He said that both curricula are based around the development of three fundamental abilities. “You need to have technical project management skills – to understand what the project and programmes are about and how they’re implemented. But then you have to have a skill set that could be termed leadership or soft skills – that helps you work within your team, handle conflict and manage risk. And then there’s that thing called commercial capability which involves understanding the generalist aspects, understanding the way policy is developed, why we’re doing this: ‘The reason why this programme is being implemented is to help drive this policy, and the outcomes of this policy are X’.”

Dingwall, an MPLA graduate, said his experience of the training gave him new language tools which increased his confidence while explaining the risks associated with the introduction of online voter registration to former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. “It was about creating that space to explore what it means to be someone who’s influencing and using technical skills that you need to engage with the key decision makers,” he said.

Sumitomo-Wyatt’s view of the academy was slightly less enthusiastic. While he praised some of the lectures and welcomed the insights he gained from fellow cohorts, he said some of the content was “flimsy”. “What we had was broadly about leadership initially and then some interesting anecdotes connected to the aviation sector and then about various disasters,” he said. “But that is the bit that sticks in my mind rather than something that’s a leadership attribute connected to running projects.”

Defending the MPLA, Harrington said that different people take different things from the course, depending on their learning style, their current knowledge level and their level of seniority. And, referring to the journey identified by Manzoni, she assured Sumitomo-Wyatt: “In a few cohorts’ time, with feedback like yours, these sorts of issues will be ironed out.”

She was clear, however, that the MPLA, along with the other initiatives to improve the profile of major project management in government, is already bearing fruit. “Now we have an established profession,” she said. “We’ve got our apprentices coming in, lots of people applying for our new Fast Stream programme, a huge amount of work going on in developing job roles, how the profession is going to be structured, working with professional organisations – all the things to really start to take the profession forward.”

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