In conversation with…Bernadette Kelly

Bernadette Kelly is permanent secretary of the Department for Transport and the category champion for the Civil Service Project Delivery Award. She sat down with EY’s Sayeh Ghanbari to discuss what makes excellent project management, and the future of mobility


19 Feb 2019

The winner of the 2018 Project Delivery award was the Monarch Repatriation Team – a joint team from the Department for Transport and Civil Aviation Authority. What made them stand out for you as an exemplary piece of work?

I suspect the first thing the judges will have spotted was that it was one of those crisis response issues that was just handled extremely well. We had over 100,000 people potentially stranded overseas and we got them all home with almost no drama or news coverage because it was done so effectively. That didn't happen by accident. In terms of what made that happen, firstly there was a lot of planning. Obviously we didn't know that Monarch would definitely collapse – or when it would. However, we had known for a long time that the market was fragile, we knew the risk existed and we planned thoroughly to deal with it.

The second part of the success was the collaboration with the CAA. They were absolutely pivotal alongside the DfT team. The third thing was the support of colleagues across other parts of government as well, such as the consular staff in the Foreign Office and the Surge and Rapid Response Team in HMRC. They sent staff out to airports in Europe where we knew there would be the most people stranded, to provide support and advice and stopping the situation from getting too heated. Also, I think that all of the people who were directly involved, both in my department and in the CAA, showed real, decisive leadership. It’s a difficult thing to do, but decisions were taken in a really safe, effective and fast moving way by senior ministers and my colleagues here like Lucy Chadwick and Dan Micklethwaite, and in the CAA Andrew Haines and his team. We also had the fantastic strapline that this was the biggest repatriation since the Second World War.

The team won lots of awards, not just this Civil Service Award. The CAA and DfT won the National Transport Award for collaboration. So it's been a well-recognised effort, both in the civil service and the transport sector.

When delivering major projects, it’s key that we get both accountability and governance arrangements right. What are your thoughts on how you balance those elements when you are working with agencies and autonomous partner organisations such as Network Rail or Highways England?

As a department we’re very serious about governance. We have a Tier 1 project portfolio with a value in excess of £150bn, including things like HS2 – some of the biggest and most complex projects in the world. So we take project governance incredibly seriously and, even though some things inevitably go wrong, I think we do it well. Recent challenges like these on Crossrail and rail timetabling have caused us to spend a lot of time reflecting on and trying to strengthen governance and make sure it's as effective as it needs to be.

The absolute heart of that is clear accountability and we're always thinking about how to ensure governance is fit for the stage and the nature of the projects. HS2 is an interesting case. We've been working with the HS2 Ltd board to evolve the governance because it's no longer about developing a plan for a railway: it's about building a railway. So it's never a fixed thing –it's something that you evolve all the time.

The big challenge is to make sure that the scrutiny and challenge is also strong where appropriate. But there is always a risk. We want organisations like HS2 Ltd to be independent from the government so they can carry out their job – but they’re not fully independent. We are funding those projects, we are their client, and we are their shareholder. Therefore we have to have the right kind of oversight to be able to exercise our responsibilities as funder, as shareholder, as government in a way that is responsible.

So I think it's principally about having strong capability in those organisations, those organisations being well led by their Boards to do that. And then HMG being a really effective client and shareholder and not being static. You should also review to make sure that the governance evolves with the needs of the project.

There are obviously risks unique to each project, but also many external risks which run across many areas of work can be quite hard to mitigate, like skills or economic uncertainty. Where does the risk lie when you're talking about some of those really big external factors?

I think it's reasonable to expect organisations to be aware of their risks and they will have their own risk mitigation which should be covering external factors – just as I would expect my risk register to do the same with things that are outside my department’s control. So there's no reason why public sector bodies, shouldn't have plans to mitigate the impact of those risks.

On the other hand, skills is a really good case in point. We absolutely expect all our delivery partners to be extremely focused on how they're thinking about their needs in the future and building the skills and supply chains that they will need. As a department, we also think about what more can we do across the sector to support that.

For example, we can look at the Strategic Transport Apprentices Taskforce. That was something that was initially kicked off with HS2, Highways England, Network Rail, TfL and Crossrail because we have a common interest in building a really strong supply of skills for the future. This was a collective effort.

It’s now being led by Mike Brown from TfL, but we've also got a lot of private sector organisations involved, for example Heathrow, because they also have very strong interest in building the right skills and supply chain. STAT has set some very ambitious targets and the data tells us the transport sector is doing better than the rest of the economy in terms of its apprenticeships.

Engineering is another brilliant example. Last year was the Year of Engineering and we engaged over a million young people with the possibility of an engineering career. We've got organisations like Apple, Facebook, Lego, FIFA putting effort into this. They are the sorts of organisations that young people will look to as interesting and glamorous potential employers.

We've got data now which shows that we've seen the number of young people between seven and 11 expressing an interest in a career in engineering go up from 48 percent to 64 percent. So there are really good emerging signs that it's having a real impact.

Some of the skills base that we and the transport sector are helping to create are also skills that we need to build our homes and our future power stations. They can be transferred to other sectors, so through the work we are doing we can benefit the wider economy.

There are lots of new providers coming into this area– some were initially just apps but are now merging with physical services and using data really well. They can come at the issues differently because they have no legacy – they’re just relentless about getting the best outcome for passengers. The challenge is how can government work with these providers and enable the outcome which is best for the passengers?

One of the exciting things for us as a department is that this is causing us to reach out to and work with companies and organisations and parts of the economy which we haven’t worked with before. Digital services companies are suddenly important, not just the traditional transport providers. We’re really having to reach out to a wider group of organisations and people.

What is government's vision for future mobility?

Becoming a world leader in the future of mobility is one of the four grand challenges in the Industrial Strategy. Through that we will look at the trends shaping mobility and how government can address any challenges arising from those trends. In DfT, we were very pleased to have that as one of the grand challenges.

The innovation we are seeing in mobility has really exciting solutions to all of the big transport challenges of congestion, air quality and accessibility. These sorts of changes require us to ask ourselves hard questions, like what is the role of government? It's certainly not going to be to prescribe what the outcomes are and what the future looks like.

Clearly we have a role as a regulator, but we also have a role in convening, acting as a catalyst and an enabler for the right sort of innovation to come through. It's less about us as a government deciding what should happen and putting in place a plan for those things to happen. Rather, it’s a much more creative, agile and dynamic role for government.

The grand challenge is a great opportunity for transport and a great opportunity for the economy.

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