Josie Cluer: Setting up to succeed on major projects

Working on ambitious major projects can be daunting, but good planning can make life a lot more simple

By Josie Cluer

03 Jul 2015

The Major Projects Authority’s (MPA) third annual report was published last week amid a flurry of RAG ratings. The report demonstrates the scale of the government’s portfolio of projects: in 14/15 alone, the government will spend as much on major projects as it does on transport (£23bn) and, of that, a quarter is due to be spent by programmes which are rated as red or red/amber. 

This demonstrates that, although there has been progress, ensuring major projects are successful is critical to safeguarding public money. In particular, in line with the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendations last year, the MPA says that next year it will focus on improving the initial set up of projects. And rightly so. 

Too many project set ups are rushed or incomplete, and they never fully recover. You’ll know these projects from your own organisation: the one where no one can explain why you’re doing it; the one where no one really knows who’s in charge; the huge one supported by three junior team members doing their very best; the one where everyone sniggers when the go-live date is mentioned. 

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As a former special adviser, I understand why project set ups are not always perfect: ministers want to take action on their priorities, respond to events, and make an impact quickly. With huge ambitions, the project team wants to get going quickly and doesn’t want paperwork to slow it down. But as a consultant now working with public servants on major programmes, I also see why setting up a project correctly at the outset is critical. So what are some of the key aspects to consider as you prepare to set up a project?

Agree what you’re doing and why. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it is unclear exactly what a programme is supposed to achieve. For example, the ID cards programme was always doomed to fail because it wasn’t clear what they were for, and different ministers had different views. The programme team had to make fudge after fudge, so there was movement, but little progress. Before you get going, set out the aims, objectives and benefits you seek to achieve. Only then will you know whether the project is worthwhile, and you’ll be clear as to whether you’re on track or not. 

Design strong, clear governance. All too often in big organisations (the public sector is a prime example but business does it too), difficult decisions are made in one forum, and then unmade again in another. The result is that the programme goes round in circles, wasting time and money. So set up clear governance in which senior responsible owners (SROs) and programme directors are empowered to drive the programme forward. The recent policy of permanent secretaries writing (and publishing) letters to SROs, clearly setting out their responsibilities will, I hope, help empower SROs to take personal responsibility for delivery, and therefore take more proactive decisions which they enforce. 

Make sure you have the right team to deliver. You wouldn’t let a “gifted amateur” deliver your baby, represent you in court, or build your extension, so don’t let them run a multi-million pound programme. A large complex programme needs highly skilled programme managers. Often they need additional commercial, ICT and change management expertise too. Thanks to the successful delivery of the Olympics, the public sector is increasingly valuing people who can deliver on time and on budget. And thanks to the MPA, the Major Projects Leadership Academy and the programme and project management profession, capability and capacity is improving. 

Take your time to get it right. Yes, government should be ambitious about delivering change, and it should also be sympathetic to ministers and senior civil servants’ desires to make an impact quickly, but getting it done should not be at the expense of getting it done right. Every hour spent building a robust business case, plan, and programme initiation document will save you hundreds in trying to explain embarrassing mistakes or missed deadlines. Additionally, for the resultant benefits to ‘stick’, there is likely to be behaviour change required - and this takes time.

Be brave enough to pause the programme. Finally, if these elements are not in place, the programme simply won’t succeed. So programme directors, SROs, ministers, the Treasury and the MPA should consider pausing programmes that need the building blocks to be strengthened until they are genuinely ready to proceed. Universal Credit has attracted significant criticism for its recent failures. But its leadership should be celebrated for admitting the programme had lost its way and “resetting” it last year. Without this courage, the government would still be throwing good money after bad.

Major projects always come with challenges, but good planning at the outset will maximise the chances of success. While it may feel like it is delaying action, it will pay dividends later on.

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