A Spending Review offers a chance to re-examine projects and plans from the last four years – and to lay the groundwork for the next round of schemes. Government project chief Tony Meggs tells Richard Johnstone how the Infrastructure and Projects Authority will use the process to help drive improvement
Project management in government is always focused on the future, on what comes next over the horizon. By their very nature these schemes are about improving the country’s growth potential, expanding transport connections for generations to come, and implementing new policies in a fast-changing world.
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority chief executive Tony Meggs is making sure that the future of project delivery now gets as much focus as the projects themselves. He has been working since 2015 to improve the delivery of the government’s biggest schemes on the Government Major Projects Portfolio – and claims significant progress in upping the profile and prestige of projects and those who deliver them across government.
“I think it would be fair to say that the profession itself is much more professional, we have a lot more highly trained people running and working on projects across government. We obviously have the GMPP and transparency of information, and we have built a system that goes from the Green Book initiation of projects through the whole delivery pathway. We are in a lot better shape as a profession that both understands projects and how to do them, and has the skills to do them. I think everyone in government would attest to that.
“The second thing is that the importance of projects is well understood in a way it probably wasn’t before – the necessity to implement policy through good projects and programmes is well understood, and the prominence of the role of project delivery is in better shape.”
However, Meggs also acknowledges that “everything in the garden is not rosy”, noting that there are “more reds and amber-reds than we would like to have” in the GMPP’s annual report, which shows where progress can be made to tackle what he called “one or two deep issues”.
He highlights four main areas – project initiation, performance management, portfolio size, and getting the right skills in the right places.
At the start of projects, Meggs says, there is a risk that too much is promised on too short a timeframe and – as the whole of government begins to plan submissions to the Treasury for the 2019 Spending Review and the finance ministry begins to scope out public spending plans – there is an opportunity to make changes.
“To be really blunt about this, this is about promising too much at the outset, particularly on big transformation projects, which are very often extremely ambitious and where the initial timescale is set without proper project timing and review.
“I could give you plenty of examples of this – big projects where either at a Spending Review or after an election – early promises are made that are not based on realistic assumptions about how long things actually take. As we move into this Spending Review, we are using a lot of data about actual performance versus anticipated performance to inform decisions that are made.”
The IPA is a joint Treasury-Cabinet Office body, and Meggs says “we are not on anybody’s side here, we are on the side of getting good outcomes”. To deliver these outcomes, government needs better performance management data to measure delivery versus promises. This data will help inform the negotiations that will pick up after chancellor Philip Hammond sets out the public spending profile at the Budget in autumn.
“We are having discussions with departments and we are having discussions with the Treasury to make sure that, in their review of submissions, they are paying due attention to these things,” Meggs adds. This includes new guidance for departments on what they need to put into proposals to get them funded through the Spending Review. “We are also training Treasury folks, so they understand not just the financial aspects but the feasibility aspects of projects and programmes,” he says.
“We are working across the whole system – we are not just going to be Treasury dogsbodies or checkers, we’re helping departments. And everybody knows how this process works – it is political at the end of the day, we just want to make it as good as it can be from a project and programme perspective. It will never be perfect.”
The Spending Review also provides a chance for departments to revisit their own plans, with Meggs highlighting HM Revenue and Customs’ work to re-prioritise its wide-ranging portfolio of transformation projects as “my favourite example at the moment of a department that has worked very, very hard to prioritise activity in order to make sure that they can be successful.”
HMRC announced in June that it would delay or pause 39 IT projects and other reforms as part of its wide-ranging transformation programme, with elements of the flagship Making Tax Digital scheme among the areas to be stopped.
Such examinations are required across government, says Meggs, “Less is more – let’s do fewer things really well, rather than trying do everything in a less successful way.” And the IPA can “help departments build portfolio management capabilities so that people have a realistic sense of how to phase their work – how much resources, how much money, how many people are available to do the work”.
The Ministry of Justice is another example where Meggs says the department has worked to sort through their portfolio to work out “what is critical and what is more optional, understand their resource and understand their workload”.
As a result, the MoJ has a much clearer idea than in the last Spending Review of what else they can take on – or not. “I can’t say all departments have this capability well developed yet, but departments are working on it and we plan to support them further.”
All this work is brought together by the IPA’s fourth area of focus – what Meggs calls “the right people in the right jobs”.
This is building on what has already happened, he tells CSW. “We have done a tremendous amount of training and we’re really proud of that, I think it makes a real difference, but experience also counts and we want to make sure that our most complex and challenging projects have the best and most experienced people on them, he says.
“Right now, we are not doing that systematically across government. We tend to use people who are available in individual departments rather than taking a more cross-government approach and making sure we have the best people on them.”
Meggs concludes that: “Overall our ability to deliver big infrastructure projects is actually quite good. I would like it to be better.
“I think we have many more skills, much more ability, much more awareness, but I think we still have one or two issues we want to address.”