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21.07.15

Two cheers for the MPA!

By Josie Cluer, public sector lead at transformation consultancy Moorhouse

The Major Projects Authority (MPA) has just published its third Annual Report. There are distinct signs that it is beginning to improve the way Whitehall carries out major programme delivery. Under the traffic light system it uses to assess confidence in delivery, 53 projects have improved their rating in the last year.

This is good news for government, and good news for the public: Whitehall tends to get a lot of criticism for the way it handles public sector programmes and projects – more so than the private sector because, of course, taxpayer money is at stake. But transformational change is hard in any sector, and there is nothing to suggest that the public sector fares any worse than the private sector. And this is despite the fact that public sector programmes are often far, far larger in scope and ambition, must meet the challenge of ‘customer’ accessibility, and that political winds tend to shift more frequently than those in the business world.

But now that it has proved its worth, the MPA needs to increase its impact, and it needs more powers to be able to do so. From the outset, the MPA has been open about the scale, pace and complexity of Government-driven projects. And rightly so – no one should pretend driving major change through the public sector in an age of austerity is easy. The MPA, the Cabinet Office and Whitehall more generally also recognise the need for project and programme management skills, which are for the first time being taken seriously; the Major Projects Leadership Academy has been working hard to build the skills and capabilities that are needed to run transformational projects of this scale and nature. But building capabilities and skills is only half the picture, the other half is culture. Much more must be done to improve the profile of good project and programme management in government. Historically, policy has been seen as the ‘crown jewels’ of the Civil Service. Young, ambitious civil servants want to write a white paper and work in Private Office, not deliver a major project. This has to change, and the MPA should lead the charge. It has a key role to play in celebrating project and programme managers and supporting others to understand the value they bring.

The government is also making efforts to hold senior officials more accountable for the success – or otherwise – of the projects under their leadership. For example, last year the government revised the Osmotherly Rules so that Senior Responsible Officers (SROs, who are senior civil servants) are accountable to Parliament for the delivery of their projects. In reality this means they can be called up by a Select Committee to answer questions on delivery. The government also now publishes letters to SROs jointly from the MPA CEO and permanent secretaries to ensure senior officials know exactly what they’re on the hook to deliver. So far so good. But increased accountability must go hand-in-hand with empowerment if it’s to have any meaning. So the rule changes need to be followed up by strengthening the support given to those SROs and other senior leaders (including ministers) to help them succeed in their roles.

Next, the MPA needs to go further in the use of portfolio management in how it manages all the government’s projects and programmes; simply looking across the full £489bn of spend is a very light form of portfolio management, with the real value being derived from what the MPA does with the results of that overarching view. For example, the MPA could have the ability to allocate resources across the portfolio according to priority and need, and the power to review and react more quickly to emerging themes and risks, and identifying areas requiring additional support. Last and most crucially, the MPA needs to be given the authority to pause those programmes that are failing to deliver on objectives or budgets (red- and red/amber-rated), as the Public Accounts Committee argued last year.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to fix failing projects, or to guarantee the success of new ones, but the MPA has laid the foundation for the public sector to begin to build a record of success and all the associated and relevant experience that goes with it. So two cheers for the MPA for making a good start. I hope it continues to develop its role and remit to do even more to improve the delivery of major projects in government.

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