Editorial: a new project for project managers

PPM staff lack a coherent profession; they require one, argues Matt Ross, editor of Civil Service World.

Christophe Ena/AP/Press Association Images

By Matt.Ross

08 May 2014

Since 2010, the government and civil service have made great strides in improving project and programme management (PPM). The Major Projects Authority has established a system of cross-Whitehall testing and approval to check that projects are robust – and received a far warmer reception than other Cabinet Office-imposed control regimes. The Major Projects Leadership Academy is up and running, improving professional standards among top PPM directors. In the devolved administrations, centres of excellence have sprung up offering advice, training and scrutiny. In Westminster, there are moves to improve project managers’ direct accountability to select committees, and even a tweak to salary controls to encourage SROs to stay in post for the duration of a project: the money available is pretty trivial, but it remains the only civil service-wide exception that the Treasury’s made to its rigid pay rules.

Yet at a recent CSW round table on PPM we heard again a refrain aired last year, when we last brought PPM staff together. The government may have created quality controls and more SRO training, but the PPM profession as a whole is still under-developed – a weakness made ever more glaring as other professions, such as procurement and communications, take a more tangible and coherent form. The challenges in civil service PPM continue to grow, as the government’s outsourcing agenda demands new capabilities in planning, fostering and utilising supplier markets (a dynamic that will require ever more cooperation with colleagues in the commercial disciplines). Yet PPM officials complain of weak career development paths, patchy training provision, a shortage of opportunities to move around the civil service and, above all, a chronic lack of channels through which they can meet and learn from their peers across government. Indeed, the profession is so poorly developed that it doesn’t even have its own page on the civil service website.

Some departments, such as HMRC, are plugging the gap with in-house training operations – and these could open their doors to other departments, creating a network of small learning hubs.

Other aspects of the challenge require more movement in the Treasury: part of the answer lies in further strengthening the exemptions granted to pay rules, enabling departments to field more expert professionals. After all, the government has accepted the case for paying PPM staff more in Defence Equipment & Support and the Highways Agency, implementing much more substantial reforms that take them outside pay controls entirely. Departmental PPM managers face recruitment and retention problems just as great as these two lucky agencies; they need the firepower to compete for the best staff.

Giving the profession chartered status could also help PPM staff to learn from their peers – albeit outside government. But the greatest need is for a stronger civil service profession: one able to broker cross-government movements, mentoring and secondments; foster and coordinate dedicated training for those below the SRO level; press for intelligent amendments to pay controls; build career pathways; and, above all, enable PPM staff to learn about, with and from their peers across government.

Right now, new MPA chief John Manzoni is getting to grips with the needs of civil service PPM and its teams across government. He has inherited an effective system of cross-government scrutiny and approval; he should now make it his mission to build an active, coherent profession  that can develop skills and capabilities over the long term. Building a profession isn’t an easy project, but it is a worthwhile one – and if there’s one group of civil servants who should be equipped to plan and execute such a complex and delicate programme of work, it’s this one.

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

See also: round table on programme and project management

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform

Share this page