Honesty needed over problematic major projects, PAC says

Officials need help to make “hard decisions” on projects that are failing
The Crossrail project's Woolwich Station Photo: Balfour Beatty / Crossrail

By Jonathan Owen

15 Sep 2023

Senior officials tasked with resetting major projects need greater support from the government amid concerns over a lack of openness and honesty, according to members of  parliament’s influential Public Accounts Committee.

In a report released today, the committee said: “Without the right environment, individuals may be afraid to report problems in a timely and honest way, which makes it harder to identify the need for a reset and the issues a reset should address.”

The government expects to spend £678bn across its 235 “largest, most innovative and riskiest programmes”. Yet MPs said the resetting of failing major programmes by Whitehall “is made more difficult by a lack of guidance and structure from government”.

The report, which is titled Resetting government programmes, draws on evidence from four senior responsible owners. These include Matthew Lodge, SRO for the Department for Transport’s Crossrail programme; Neil Couling, SRO for the Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit programme; Dr David Marsh, SRO for the Ministry of Defence’s Ajax programme; and Jim Barton, SRO for the Ministry of Justice’s Electronic Monitoring programme.

It reveals that there is no “standard definition” for a reset, or specific guidance for departments on how to reset complex multi-billion-pound schemes. This leads to confusion, with the MoD’s £5.5bn Ajax armoured vehicle programme a case in point. It is “unclear” how many times this programme has been reset, according to the report. “A lack of guidance and structure around programme resets means they are not always identified so a failing programme does not get back on track.”

It warns that "without the right environment, individuals may be afraid to report problems in a timely and honest way". This can make it "harder to identify the need for a reset and the issues a reset should address".

The report quotes Lodge admitting that the £19bn Crossrail programme had “started to believe its own ‘on-time, on-budget’ mantra, which stopped many people raising issues”. The SRO for the programme “also felt that, in hindsight, the governance structures did not provide the Department for Transport, as sponsor, enough transparency over potential issues”.

This is part of a wider issue, the report states. “Not having the right environment to encourage diverse views, transparency and constructive challenge has created problems in identifying and managing resets.”

It says that there are programmes “when there has not been sufficient candour, for example on the civil contact, and as a result resets being undertaken later than needed”.

In addition, SROs described how “it would be helpful if resets were seen more positively… they also commented that resets can be seen as a failure and can be a traumatic event for programme staff, after which the confidence of the team would need to be rebuilt”.

Better planning is needed to avoid unnecessary resets of major programmes, and the government needs to “encourage an environment conducive to constructive challenge and openness, and establish the right skills and leadership for a reset”, MPs said.

The lack of civil service pay incentives makes it a challenge to encourage senior leaders to remain in their roles, the report notes.

It calls on the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to work with departments to ensure they use any available levers to incentivise continuity of leadership. They should also develop guidance to help programme teams “realistically reflect the uncertainties of the environment within which they operate in their programme assumptions and estimates to help reduce the likelihood of significant changes”.

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier commented: “It can be hard to admit for any high-stakes endeavour when it is time to change direction. This is especially so for officials in the glare of publicity at the helm of innovative and risky projects with budgets of many billions, under pressure for delivery both from politicians and the public’s understandable expectations for improvements.”

She added: “If the government does not provide senior leaders in Whitehall with the necessary support, clear-eyed and hard decisions will not be made when required. No one wants to see such high-cost projects designed to benefit the public fail, so a robust culture of openness and honesty with diverse points of view must be present to successfully course-correct a programme which looks at risk.”

Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: “The Infrastructure and Projects Authority works with departments to improve the performance of major projects.”

They added: “We are making good progress on increasing project management skills, including through stepped up training through the Major Project Leadership Academy and the Government Project Delivery Academy for more junior staff.”

Tailored support is given to major projects “to help set them on the right path,” according to the spokesperson.

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