If the government wants to deliver on its ambitions to build the UK out of the coronavirus economic downturn, it will likely need to boost the pay of civil servants who can lead the projects, a committee of MPs has found.
In a report published yesterday, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee warned that Boris Johnson’s pledge to "build, build, build" out of the Covid-19 crisis could “leave a legacy of white elephants” without culture change on handling of major projects.
In particular, the committee warned any additional or fast-tracked funding for projects could be squandered without better co-ordination of local projects, long-term tracking of performance and greater transparency over delivery.
The prime minister set out plans to bring forward £5bn worth of investment projects, including a £1.5bn package for hospital maintenance and expansion, last month. He said it was the start of government moves to “build back better, build back greener, build back faster and to do that at the pace that this moment requires”.
PACAC chair William Wragg said the government must not treat completing the grand infrastructure projects as an end in itself but “focus on how much they deliver the benefits they set out to achieve and were the basis for being given the go ahead”.
He called for greater clarity on the overarching aims for infrastrucre spending and on how it will support economic growth, as well for more information on what "levelling up" means in practice.
“We must also see improvement in how projects are developed at a local level. It will be critical not just to get local support for infrastructure projects, but getting local input in identifying problems and developing solutions must be better supported and become a feature of programme development at a much earlier stage.
“Investing time at the outset to make sure everyone is clear about the aims and proposed benefits, alongside a change in the culture of how major projects are developed and managed, should mean that this transformative change is achievable.”
Project delivery skills need pay bump
The report concluded that the government may also need to give further consideration to how to improve civil service skills to deliver a new slate of projects.
MPs acknowledged that steps had been taken in recent years towards this goal, with would-be senior responsible officers on major projects now required to undertake training with the Major Project Leadership Academy, as well as the creation of the Project Leadership Programme for officials beneath the SCS.
However, in his evidence to the committee, Infrastructure and Projects Authority head Nick Smallwood said provision of project management training had not penetrated far enough into the civil service. The MPs concluded that the government should therefore consider further steps to boost skills “which might include a commitment to making salaries more competitive, at least in the short term”.
They called on the Cabinet Office to review whether a separate pay system or allowance for SROs and valuable project managers would help keep them in their roles for the duration of a project, and report back in the autumn.
This is the latest in a long line of reviews and reports calling for more to be done to keep top civil servants in their jobs for longer so they build up expertise. This is set to form a key part of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove’s forthcoming reform plan for the civil service.
The report comes after outgoing cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill said on Monday that addressing high levels of civil service churn would require a fundamental review of civil service pay.
SROs ‘in place from start to finish’
The PACAC report said SROs should lead a project from start to completion, and remain accountable for delivering benefits afterwards. Departmental permanent secretaries should ensure the right incentives are in place to retain them, “including career or pay progression opportunities as appropriate”.
After Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew told the committee that “frighteningly, 88% of projects do not have an SRO who is spending 75% or more of his time on that project”, the MPs concluded: “SROs should have enough time to lead properly the projects for which they are accountable – and in many cases, this will require the SRO to work full time on that project.”
The committee welcomed the introduction of training for ministers in project management. “It is important that ministers take the opportunity provided to educate themselves better about how projects are delivered and how they can have an impact on that, both positively and negatively,” the report said.
The committee added that all secretaries of state and any minister with "significant projects" in their portfolio should undertake this training "immediately after appointment".
It said government should include in its response to the report a list of all ministers who have already received the training and those who are booked to complete it by the end of the calendar year.
Elsewhere in the report, the committee said a new National Infrastructure Strategy should be published “before a penny is spent on new projects”. This should be accompanied by the planned revision to the Treasury’s Green Book for project cost benefit analysis, which is set to be revised to better appraise the benefits of that investment outside of London.
“This may mean accepting lower overall economic returns for wider benefits, such as local regeneration or ‘levelling-up’. The Treasury should update the Green Book to reflect these wider government objectives and publish it no later than September so that it can provide a basis for post-Covid spending and future infrastructure investment,” the MPs said.
The Cabinet Office should take an active role in ensuring infrastructure programmes are coordinated and avoid a scattergun approach, and the IPA should do more to report on performance against benefits plans for individual projects, including a standardised financial measure of benefits, the report added.
They should also consider periodic reporting on past projects to better assess their long-term performance, as the “current data published in IPA reports is insufficient to demonstrate whether a projects are in line with what the public was promised when projects were devised”.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The government is delivering a bold and ambitious portfolio of major projects, to support economic growth, decarbonise the economy and underpin the delivery of our public services across the United Kingdom.
"We are committed to working with local people, partners and across sectors to ensure that all UK citizens benefit from the delivery of infrastructure and major projects."