By Colin Marrs

27 Apr 2015

It’s two years since the launch of the Major Projects Leadership Academy, a training school designed to improve the leadership of big public sector schemes. With 100 graduates now under its belt, is the programme achieving its aims? Colin Marrs reports

Ever wondered what a senior civil service version of TV’s Big Brother would look like? The Major Projects Leadership Academy is now bringing leaders of UK’s biggest public schemes together to live under the same roof for periods of a week at a time. But what sounds like a recipe for ratings disaster could be switching Whitehall on to a new approach to project management.

The MPLA was announced in February 2012, crystallising a recommendation included in the previous year’s Civil Service Reform Plan. The full academy programme was up and running by October 2012 and is aimed at delivering a competency framework based on four leadership pillars – personal, major projects, commercial and technical.

David Blackall, acting chief executive of the government’s Major Projects Authority, who has oversight of MPLA, is now secure enough about the academy to admit that success was not a given. He identifies a certain amount of trepidation and uncertainty from departments about the untested training programme. “When we first started, they weren’t quite sure what the value would be and who it would be best aimed at,” he says.

At the outset, the aim was to begin training all senior responsible officers and programme directors on major projects by the end of 2014, with an expectation that two cohorts of 25 people would graduate each year. Just two and a half years on, there are already 100 graduates – and another 320 have embarked on the training. “We accelerated our plans after the value became clear to everyone during the first cohort,” Blackall says.

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The MPLA is being delivered jointly by the Major Projects Authority, Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and consultancy Deloitte. Attendees undertake academic reading before three separate residential weeks at the school. Prior to final assessment, they must produce five written assessments along with a development plan describing how they will put their learning into action. “The course is quite demanding – you are going to lose quite a few weekends going through it,” Blackall says.

Teaching during the residential weeks is workshop-based, with a third of sessions devoted to discussion of key points in smaller groups. This allows the academic learning to be applied to real life work situations, according to Blackall – who graduated from the first cohort during his previous life at the Department for Transport. “It is highly interactive – these are natural leaders who are used to being vocal and having opinions,” he says.

Outside of the classroom, the timetable incorporates activities to support learning, which according to the MPLA handbook includes “morning energiser sessions including Tai Chi, running and access to the on-site gym”. The students also eat together, providing an opportunity to swap their experiences.

Paul Chapman, director of the Saïd’s MSc in major programme management – taken mainly by private sector project leaders – also heads up the MPLA programme for the business school. Those taking the two different courses have more in common than might be imagined, he says. “The challenges faced by the public sector are of a similar magnitude to the private sector. If people on the MPLA were doing the MSc, nobody would be embarrassed.” Indeed, to avoid the courses becoming too dominated by the large number of MoD project leaders, he says, some have been put on the MSc programme, “where they have flourished”.

While the MSc requires around 120 days of work, the MPLA programme only requires 30. Chapman says that this has led to the curriculum being divided 50/50 between technical and leadership elements on the MPLA course, compared to 80/20 on the MSc. The fundamental aim of the programme is to develop the critical capabilities of senior civil servants. “We want participants to leave asking bigger and better questions while being pragmatic. The teaching method is to set up some ideas, start poking and deconstructing them and working out how you would put them back together again,” Chapman says. 

Lessons and feedback from the early cohorts has led to some tweaks to the content of the course. Chapman says: “We have further developed the commercial side as the Crown Commercial Service has come on stream.” In addition, the course now incorporates emerging lessons from the Government Digital Service on how agile working – hitherto perceived as a purely digital project approach – can improve wider project delivery. “We shouldn’t put the philosophy of agile in a digital ghetto,” Chapman says. “It is about challenging the idea that you should plan every single element of a project at the beginning.”

After the intensive training, prospective graduates face an assessment panel, on which Chapman and Blackall both sit. This assesses each student’s thick portfolio of written material, and discusses the proposed changes that they would make to their real-life project. “I always turn to David and ask ‘do you have confidence in this person to lead a major project?’ That always cuts through and allows us to reach a well-informed decision.”

Any suggestion that senior civil servants are handed an easy pass is dismissed by Chapman, who estimates the failure rate at between 10% to 20% per cohort. He says: “It is not always an easy conversation to have, but it is an honest one,” he says. Blackall adds that some are awarded qualified passes with stipulations as to the type of projects they would be most suited to lead. He says: “There are some that have skills in specialist areas that are not widely deployable.”

Chapman is comforted by the fact that some those who failed in the earliest cohorts have returned for a second bite of the MPLA cherry. After identifying their weaknesses and working on their own development plan, they have succeeded after trying again. He says: “They will generally report that it was not easy at the time of their rejection, but acknowledge that it has helped them improve their skills.”

Quantifying the impact of the MPLA process is not easy, but both Chapman and Blackall are convinced that significant savings have been made as a result of the training received by leaders. While Blackall says that anecdotal feedback from graduates puts the figure at around £100m of efficiency gains, Chapman says that the government’s return on investment has been around 8,000%. “We need to be cautious – these figures are not audited but we are doing some more work to try to understand this,” Blackall says.

If these figures are proved correct then the MPLA seems to have a bright future. And the notorious turnover of senior civil servants in Whitehall means that there will always be a constant stream of candidates who will benefit from the academy’s training. After the MPLA’s frenetic start, Blackall says that around four cohorts per year is deemed the right level to deal with the ongoing churn.

As the programme matures, so the calibre of candidates is improving. The MPLA meets departments to discuss who they are going to be putting forward in the future. “When we first started, departments weren’t quite sure who the course would be best aimed at and some of the attendees were quite experimental,” Blackall says. “We didn’t have the knowledge of their leadership communities to challenge that, but we do now.”

On the back of the perceived success of the MPLA, the government announced earlier this month that it had appointed Cranfield University to run a parallel scheme, the Project Leadership Programme, aimed at providing shorter bursts of training for leaders of initiatives which don’t fall within the government’s definition of “major projects”, along with staff outside the very top roles who are working on major projects.

With some recent reports questioning the ability of the MPA to effectively audit the major projects, the MPLA may yet prove its biggest success. Chapman says that the fruits of the programme will continue to be reaped for years to come, thanks to the networks which have developed among alumni. “There is now a critical mass of people who have been through the academy and are back in central government. Previously they thought they were the only people facing a particular issue, but this group is becoming more adept at thinking what it is about the nature of government departments that is holding them back. There is now a common voice on these issues.”

MPLA alumni share their experiences

Sarah Healey, director general at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

“I started the course in the summer of 2013 when I was senior responsible officer for automatic enrolment at the Department for Work and Pensions. When I took that role I had a discussion with my boss that because I had a background in policy, it would be important for me to do training. It was a happy coincidence when the MPLA opportunity came along.

It wasn’t the easiest thing to find three weeks to be away, especially with three children and a partner who works full time. The MPLA is able to tell you all the course times well in advance, so you can make arrangements. Originally I was asked to be part of cohort three but I had a holiday arranged so I went on the next one.

I did a lot of reading beforehand – everyone did because the course would have been hard without doing that. All of it covered the private sector and I think that is something we need to reflect on. The literature relating to the public sector is really limited.

The content of the course is very high quality and was well balanced between theoretical study and practical leadership development – it held up a mirror to how I behave in different contexts. Occasionally it felt harder to apply what we were learning to organisational change projects as opposed to infrastructure ones. We had to work a bit to apply it more broadly.

For everyone on the course, there was a bit of stepping out at breaks to check in with the office. You always feel everything is going to fall apart without you, but of course that isn’t the case.
I am doing a slightly different role now but have found the course has helped me in two areas. It has made a difference to how I use governance in projects to achieve the objectives, and the way I use management information.”

Adriènne Kelbie, chief executive of the Disclosure and Barring Service

“The DBS is a new organisation formed from the merger of the Criminal Records Bureau and the Independent Safeguarding Authority. We are about to go live with a project to integrate, overhaul and update the separate IT systems from the old organisations. My real day job is helping protect the public but have been seduced by this project malarkey.

My chairman, Bill Griffiths, originally suggested I went on the course. I am not a brain. I don’t have a degree, and was working at 19, so my first reaction was that I wouldn’t pass. When they said it was hosted at Oxford University I was even more terrified. Now, I am very pleased that I did it – there were a lot of things I didn’t know I didn’t know, and it has helped me strengthen my team.

The first week was the heaviest – there were tomes to read. It took me about five or six days to read every single thing on the reading list because I was keen not to turn up and show myself up. When I arrived, it didn’t trouble me being in a room with senior civil servants I hadn’t met before. It was an exciting atmosphere and everyone was pleasant. I am a big believer that breaking bread with people is important as a leveller. We played games together after meals – my forte was the 80s pop quiz. There was a real joie de vivre – it was a giant networking incubator.

The course made me feel a lot less lonely – I realised that these big projects are difficult and others face similar issues. Since I got back from the course, I have been tougher on my team around reporting and metrics and have been clearer about the accountabilities of the supplier and ourselves. We reset the project on more commercial terms and those benefits will be felt for years to come. When I do my next project I will do it very differently – setting it up commercially is extremely important.” 

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