By Winnie.Agbonlahor

08 May 2014

Project management may be as much art as science, but it’s not magic – yet government often fails to replicate the alchemy behind its biggest PPM successes. Winnie Agbonlahor reports back from a round table on the topic 

It used to be believed that one of Britain’s earliest major projects – Stonehenge – was overseen by the wizard Merlin. And whether the magician was involved or not, its construction will certainly have demanded almost supernatural building skills, organisational abilities and workforce management. 

On occasion, today’s public sector shows itself capable of rising to similar heights. Take the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was, according to the prime minister, “a great showcase for the best of the civil service: effective collaboration across departments, agencies and with the private sector; flexibility and innovation; and an absolute focus on delivery”.

However, many public sector projects prove less robust. The letting of the West Coast Mainline unravelled due to poor commercial skills, while Universal Credit’s problems underline the challenges of creating realistic timescales, management continuity, and coordinated interdepartmental working.

Managing a major project isn’t magic, but it does require departments to have sufficient capability and experience. Civil Service World, in conjunction with the Project Management Institute (PMI), therefore hosted a round table discussion to address the question: how can Whitehall improve its ability to manage projects from initial planning to successful conclusion?

Learning lessons 
For a start, participants noted, it’s important to learn from past mistakes. And government isn’t very good at doing this: “The public sector keeps talking about learning lessons,” said David Dunsmuir, head of the Scottish government’s programme and project management (PPM) centre of expertise. Yet the most common reasons for project failure, he added, “have been the same for 15 to 20 years”.

To avoid making these same errors, Dunsmuir said, project managers should routinely consult the ‘lessons learnt’ papers compiled in each department after major projects. His view was echoed by Mike New, a technical analyst at the Ministry of Defence.

The problem is the huge pressure on project managers to move fast, Dunsmuir said; anyone spending lots of time doing research before moving to concrete action is likely to be accused of “analysis paralysis”. However, Alex Bouras, a senior project manager working on joint workplace solutions for the Treasury and Cabinet Office, was sceptical about the value of ‘lessons learned’ papers. “I’ve got the qualifications; I’ve got the experience,” he said. “I’m not even sure what I would try to find out that would be useful for a [new] project, aside from generic project management skills.”

Discussion groups might be more useful, he said – echoing the view of Ann Coad, a lead project review manager at the Home Office. “I found it most useful to share lessons learnt by just getting a project manager to talk to another project manager who’s done something similar at a previous time,” she said. Elysia McCaffrey, change programme director at the Department for Education, agreed and noted that, in her experience, talking to someone who has worked on a project comparable to hers has “probably saved me about a month of paperwork”. 

Sharing knowledge
Another problem is that that government doesn’t provide channels through which PPM information can be shared, participants said. Stephen McDowell, head of the Centre for Programme and Project Management in Northern Ireland, said it is “a bit disappointing that it’s not more of a managed process and part of the solution”. 

In Wales, said the Welsh Government’s Richard Wilson – a deputy director in the Commercial and PPM Division – a centre of expertise offers a “helpline-type service” to people starting projects. However, Ann Coad suggested that in most parts of government, information sharing depends largely on “individuals networking” – making an effort to talk to people, rather than waiting for structures to be put in place. 

“I haven’t come across any other departments, other than in meetings like this [round table], when you start to meet project managers from other areas,” she added. “I wouldn’t know where to start”. The DfE’s McCaffrey backed this view, noting that “we all need to be a bit bolder in using our contacts in departments to share knowledge”.

There’s also more work to do in building people’s networks of contacts. “I probably wouldn’t approach other folk just off the back of finding an email address,” Dunsmuir said, adding: “It’s obviously easier to ask someone something if you know them, rather than just dropping an email or phone call to say: ‘I’ve never met you before, and by the way can you give me this?’” With continued reductions in civil servant numbers, he added, “I’m not too sure if there is as much time to build relationships as there was in the past”.

One way of sharing knowledge across divisional as well as departmental borders is through mentoring schemes, participants agreed. In the Scottish Government, this involves experienced senior responsible officers (SROs) passing on advice to their programme and project managers, Dunsmuir said, thus providing a “space for people to share knowledge”. Mentoring is an essential part of developing skills, Coad added: “Anybody should have a mentor – we would expect that.”

Seeking mentors in the private sector can also help, according to McCaffrey, who has been able to benefit from a mentor with a commercial background. The mentor helped her “tackle some personal development and leadership challenges” that she came across in project management, she said; and the relationship has both been helpful in her day job, and opened her eyes to opportunities in the private sector such as secondments.

Secondments are a useful way to gain an insight into different ways of managing projects, participants agreed, but throw up some practical challenges. Wilson said that encouraging people to swap the familiar civil service environment for the unknown private sector world can be “quite tricky”. The principal concern for civil servants looking at secondments, he added, is that “effectively, their career stands still for the time they’re away, so they come back to see that [their civil service colleagues] have moved on but they come back to where they were”. The other problem, Wilson said, is that private companies may not be particularly keen to take on civil servants: “Whether the industry as a whole sees project managers in government as being a particularly attractive commodity is debatable.”

People, skills and people skills
It’s also vital that government can recruit good candidates from the private sector. This is problematic, said Robin Tipper, a skills policy manager at the Ministry of Defence – not least because people recruited from business are deterred by the prospect of far greater public scrutiny and, too often, shaming in the press. The media, participants agreed, is only interested in reporting on the failed projects: “something delivered on time and on budget just isn’t news,” said Wilson. The private sector, on the other hand, Dunsmuir noted, “can hide a lot of their failures”, making it a more attractive place to work.

With private sector candidates deterred from seeking government work – relatively low salaries and complex management arrangements put people off, as well as greater public scrutiny – the civil service often appoints people without the right skills to key PPM jobs. One participant, who did not wish to be named, said that getting a top PPM role “mainly depends on whether you’re in the room [at the right time] or not”. 

More diplomatically, Wilson said that “there is always an element of randomness to how you become a project manager”. Some people with technical PPM skills end up over-promoted into leadership jobs, he suggested: “I know lots of people who can quote vast chunks out of the PRINCE2 manual, but are absolutely hopeless at engaging with stakeholders and articulating and selling a vision.” To resolve this, he argued, government should put more emphasis on developing leadership, as opposed to management skills.

Government has started to do this through its Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA), run in conjunction with Oxford University. Northern Ireland’s McDowell noted that the institution represents a “positive step” because it shows that government “recognises there are problems with leadership”. And Jordan Sims, PMI’s director of organisation relations and programmes, added that this is an “area where the UK truly outperforms what we do in the States”, because “we have no central authority to focus on standardising training for civil service employees”. 

Yet while everyone praised the MPLA, participants also noted that it’s only available to the most senior civil servants – leaving a gap to be plugged for those at “director or deputy director level”, Wilson said. For this very reason, HM Revenue and Customs has created its own “training process tailored towards people who aren’t doing [big projects like] the Olympics”, Dunsmuir noted.

What to do next? 
To prevent future failures, participants suggested several ways to give project managers the right skills. Dunsmuir argued for the creation of a stronger PPM profession “with a career path”. And Robin Tipper, a skills policy manager in the Ministry of Defence, called for this “to be supported by HR processes, performance management, training and development and recruitment”.

Another way to ensure every project manager has the right skills would be to make the profession chartered. This, Bouras said, is “key”, adding that “when you’re looking for an architect or lawyer [both chartered professions], it’s far more formalised: you know they’ve done their time”. For the government as an employer, giving the PPM profession chartered status would “send a signal that you have to be chartered to do a major project”, said Graeme Jones of the Isle of Man Parliament. And for the employee, McDowell added, it would “buy credibility”. PMI didn’t support a recent move to give PPM chartered status, but hopes a way forward can be found: “The project management profession is developing in an international direction, and PMI wants to ensure that the UK profession is represented in a way that recognises the international nature of the marketplace and workforce,” Sims said.

Participants agreed that government needs to, in Sims’s words, “identify pockets of excellence” – not only to make itself look more attractive as a workplace for outside talent, but also to enable project managers to learn from past successes rather than focusing only on what went wrong in the failures. After all, we don’t hear enough about successful projects: as McDowell said, “Apart from the Olympics I’m struggling to think of other examples”. Yet there are plenty: in the box presented here, our round tablers try to redress the balance a little. 

With most media outlets focusing on the negatives, government should make more effort to shout about its project management successes. The track record of public PPM goes all the way back to Stonehenge, but there are plenty of modern examples; and the key is not magic, but technical and professional wizardry. 

See also: Our Editorial

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