DfT's project problems linked to 'over-optimistic' staff

But MPs hear department's confidence does not extend to no-deal Brexit preparations

Photo: PA

The Department for Transport has launched a new drive to help it learn lessons from recent projects that have gone off the rails, and permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly has told MPs that over-optimistic staff could be part of the problelm.

Kelly told the Public Accounts Committee she was leading a piece of work to see where the department could learn from projects that had run into difficulty and improve the governance and oversight of future shemes as a result.

She identified Crossrail, HS2 and chaos that followed a railway timetabling shakeup in May as particular areas for learning. Yesterday's hearing also covered bonuses paid to HS2 officials and the status of DfT’s Brexit preparations.


Challenged by MPs on DfT’s handling of Crossrail, which is now facing delays of more than a year, Kelly said: “There is a wider set of lessons to be learned that we probably need a bit more time to reflect on.”

The department only learned that the Crossrail project was delayed in August, after months of being told it would be delivered on time, Kelly told the committee. MPs said they were concerned that Kelly had not pressed for stronger assurances the project would be delivered on time earlier and did not immediately tell them or parliament when she learned of the delay.

Crossrail is being delivered by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Transport for London that is jointly sponsored by the mayoral body and DfT.

The committee also grilled Kelly about the governance structures DfT had put in place to improve financial controls on HS2. She said DfT had sought to ensure a more “honest and trust-based relationship” with HS2 Limited, the executive non-departmental public body delivering the project, to “prevent a repeat” of the circumstances that led to the company making nearly £2m in redundancy payouts that were not authorised by the department. DfT is the sponsor department for HS2 Limited.

She said the department was grappling with how to resolve the “tension” in how complex projects are managed.

One of the major issues behind failed projects was that problems had not been not addressed early on as “optimistic” officials believed they be delivered on time, she said.

She noted that the interim findings of the Glaister Review into this summer’s rail delays “identified a similar kind of can-do optimism bias that does creep through when everybody acting in good faith wants to get the thing done”.

“I am actually doing a piece of work with my department at the moment precisely to look at these lessons from a number of different projects,” she said.

We have got to be, I think, very smart and very sophisticated in working out how we have that spirit and have that discipline – because otherwise, frankly, none of this would ever get done – but also that we have a system which allow problems to be surfaced and escalated at the right time.”

She said she expected the work to take “a matter of a few months”.

Confidence in Brexit preparedness ‘decreasing’

Also giving evidence to the committee was DfT director general Lucy Chadwick, who told MPs that civil servants’ confidence in their ability to deliver all of the preparations necessary for a no-deal Brexit in time for 29 March 2019 was “decreasing”.

The slow progress of negotiations with the EU was slowing down preparations, she said, as the department could not start forging the bilateral agreements it would need with EU member states in a no-deal scenario before UK negotiators had concluded there will be no deal.

“Our confidence in [the DfT’s Brexit preparation] programme is somewhat decreasing because of the dependency on those bilaterals and given where we are… in terms of just the number of months left to go,” Chadwick told the MPs.

Freight capacity was among the areas that could be severely affected due to events outside the department’s control, Kelly said. She confirmed the UK has no plans to introduce additional border checks at the port of Dover, but added: “What we cannot know is what the French may choose to do their side of the border, and that is clearly a key determinant of what then happens in terms of flows of traffic.”

Of the 17 current Brexit workstreams three were marked as red, according to the department’s risk register, perm sec Kelly told MPs.

They include an air service agreement and the production of international driving permits. The latter is delayed because the DfT had not yet signed a contract with the Post Office, which would produce the permits, Kelly said. She assured the committee a contract would be signed by the end of this month.

None of the 17 projects have yet been completed, and with five months to go until Brexit, Chadwick told MPs there was “not much wriggle room” for slippage in the planned schedules. However, she said none were “significantly slipping” in a way that would prevent them from being delivered on time.

Although she said she was “confident” the department would be ready in time for a no-deal Brexit, Kelly said: “What I cannot say to the committee is that everything that could possibly need to happen in terms of contingency plans will be in place for 29 March 2019.”

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