Opinion: Ian Watmore on the Olympics

Former Cabinet Office perm sec Ian Watmore explains why the Olympics worked so well – and how officials avoided pitfalls such as political meddling and hasty deadlines

Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) - photographed for CSW by Photoshot

By Ian Watmore

17 Sep 2014

Everyone now regards the London 2012 Olympics as a shining success. So if the government can put on something as great as these Games, why can’t it achieve the same success in other projects?

The then-Office of Government Commerce’s 2002 eight common causes of project failure provided great examples of ‘worst practice’ to avoid. Here I try to find eight examples of ‘best practice’ realised in the Olympics, and ask whether we could replicate that kind of success routinely.

Reason one: there was a clear national imperative to succeed. The project had to be completed on time, to a high standard, and be something the country was proud of. The Blair government was committed to it, and it was taken up by the Brown government and subsequently by the Coalition.

Reason two: a sufficient budget was (eventually) set. After launching with an unrealistic £2-3bn budget, the project was awarded £7-8bn plus a contingency fund.

Reason three: the team had seven years to plan and to choose the right people for the job. Previous Olympics organisers faffed around for years, then played catch-up. London used the seven years properly, so was in a great position to go through the last year at a sensible pace because, for example, the bulk of the construction was completed a year early.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was able to recruit Lord (Seb) Coe, with his illustrious sporting and political background; great construction experts like Sir John Armitt for the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA); banking expert Lord (Paul) Deighton to manage operations; and many others with superb skills – all integrated by Sir Jonathan Stephens, the excellent perm sec at DCMS.

Reason four: as in American football, there were people playing ‘front-end tackle’ to keep the meddlers at bay. For example, Seb kept ‘advisers’ away from Danny Boyle and let him get on with creating the opening ceremony. Allowing the experts to do their job, not micro-managing them or back-seat driving, was crucial for success.

Reason five: there was an open and transparent publication of progress along the way, with regular external assessments by parliamentary select committees, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other experts. Everybody could see what was going on, and when it was going on – and I think that was crucial.

Reason six: there was realistic testing of all the planned activities, and appropriate contingency plans. Much of the Olympics had been well-rehearsed, and all sorts of modelling for contingency planning went on behind the scenes; for example, to handle transport chaos, rioting or terrorist attacks. This helped greatly when the G4S shambles emerged at a late stage, with the Army and others seamlessly filling in.

Reason seven: there was the right balance between using proven processes and innovation. For example, the IT systems that ran London 2012 were first created for use at the 1992 Barcelona Games, and ported from one Games to the next with incremental upgrades. By contrast, the London ticketing was extraordinarily innovative. It had its difficult moments, but everybody bought their tickets on-line for the first time in Games history. In the end, the scarcity of tickets meant people bought events for events that they’d never dreamed of attending, and found that they absolutely loved them. 

Reason eight: the final – but arguably the most crucial – determinant for success was that the ‘users’ of the Games, the British people, really took it to heart; and that helped shape the experience for the rest of the world. The BBC and Channel 4 provided brilliant media coverage. As volunteers and as spectators, people wanted to be there. And of course, they wanted British sportspeople to be winners. The press moved from looking for faults, to eulogising about how well it all went.

So, if you accept this analysis of success, let us now consider to what extent it is replicable for the many projects that every government undertakes.

On the first point, creating a national imperative to succeed is unusual, as often these projects are at the heart of political debate. We cannot expect this to be the norm.

On funding, securing enough money is notoriously difficult. And although the Treasury now routinely builds “optimism bias” into financial projections, I’m sceptical that the proper amount of money needed for a project will routinely be assigned up front.

Proper planning and choosing the right people is not straightforward, because ministers are notorious for wanting projects with aggressive timescales in order to fit in with their political tenures – which are typically two to three years in a government job.

Meanwhile, building the right team has become more difficult because the public sector has become a hostile place for the very best people from the private sector to work. There have been excellent initiatives to grow skills from within, but these are long-term and need to be supplemented from outside with the very best – not the B and C team which is easy to recruit.

On meddling, the nature of the political system is such that people do tend to interfere in projects and programmes, with the result that many have gone wrong because of late policy changes which don’t consider how delivery of a successful project occurs.

Transparency in government is improving and we move forward a notch with every administration, though there is still some way to go before openness becomes the norm for all projects – and particularly for current projects, not just completed ones.

There is also nowadays a greater understanding of the need to test scenarios and plan contingencies. For example, Universal Credit is ambitious and controversial, but has at least introduced a small-scale version before a four-year roll-out – which means it can be gradually introduced, with lessons learned and changes made along the way.

On balancing the tested with the new, there’s an interesting tension between reuse of existing assets and innovation. Government departments tend to be conservative and avoid risk, whilst there is a culture of dismissing approaches that were ‘not invented here’. This culture limits the reuse of something created in another organisation, and should be challenged.

Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson for successful projects and programmes is the importance of getting the user community to want a project to succeed before it has happened – as the British public wanted the Olympics to succeed. Galvanising the goodwill of the public means that, when there are problems, ways will be found round them in good humour; whereas if the public is in the opposite frame of mind, every little problem becomes magnified out of all proportion. 

If I look at my eight reasons for success of the Olympics, I am probably optimistic about replicating three of them – transparency; testing/contingency; and user involvement – and pessimistic about the other five: national imperative; budget; timescales/skills; meddling; and reuse/innovation.

With such uncertainty about the future of government project management, it’s really important that we debate this further in order to champion the causes of delivery success and avoid things that cause failure. It would be only too easy to slip back from the great success of London 2012 to something more mediocre in public projects – and yet we have shown that we can rise to be the best of the best. Let us make excellence the norm, and not the exception.

Finally, there is a ninth aspect of the Olympics which has yet to be manifested: the legacy. Will the London 2012 Games deliver what people hoped for when they first bid for it? It will certainly deliver a legacy in terms of a fond memory for the population that lived through it; but whether, for example, it will produce a healthier or more active population, or a regenerated East End of London, it is too early to say.

In many government projects, there’s a question over whether the ultimate benefits will ever be realised, and a risk that subsequent governments trample over the ground to make that impossible. Such trampling by future governments – whilst often well-intentioned – does tend to reduce long-term legacy benefits. Let us hope that as regards the Olympics, this is not the case.


As Cabinet Office permanent secretary, Ian Watmore chaired the Major Projects Authority Board which oversaw the Olympics. He’s now working with former Olympics staff to stage the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and leading a legacy project to build a community sports hall in South Manchester.

Read the most recent articles written by Ian Watmore - Ian Watmore: Got a question for the Civil Service Commission?

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