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How to deliver good governance

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

Martin Samphire, chair of the Association for Project Management’s (APM) Governance Specific Interest Group, tells PSE about the fundamental principles of delivering good governance on change/projects. David Stevenson reports.

Good governance is a term being used more and more often in the public and private sectors. However, actually delivering it is easier said than done.

But why is this the case with regards to the world of change/projects? Martin Samphire, chairman of the Association for Project Management’s (APM) Governance Specific Interest Group, told PSE that one of the reasons good governance fails to be delivered is because organisations, at times, do not enforce learning from past mistakes or successes, or make good governance enough of a strategic objective.

Andrew Bragg, chief executive of the APM, often says “there is no such thing as project failure, just failure of governance”.

Well-established guidelines

Samphire told us: “I believe good practice guidelines are well established, but the problem is we keep failing to follow them.

“When projects go wrong – and it is more prevalent in the public sector because it all gets reported by the Public Accounts Committee – I could pretty much guarantee that ‘poor governance’ is one of the top five reasons for failure.”

As an example of this, Samphire highlighted last year’s National Audit Office report on the Universal Credit Programme. This revealed a number of governance failures, including an over-ambitious timescale, an unclear implementation strategy, lack of appropriate controls, use of a novel (for the department) methodology and a lack of continuity of sponsor.

The APM has published a guide on good governance for project management (see box out on facing page). Of particular importance is the board’s (or equivalent body’s) “overall responsibility” and “accountability”.

“We have had a number of conversations with organisations concerned with improving corporate governance, for example the Financial Reporting Council, and they also agree that – although it is not explicitly written down (for instance in the UK Governance Code) – the board, or senior leadership team, has ultimate responsibility for projects and the governance of project management,” said Samphire.

The right culture

He added that there isn’t one right way of delivering ‘good’ governance, but applying the basics helps. This includes having ‘line of sight’ between all project objectives, and their overall business strategy; having single point sponsor accountability; applying proper stage gate reviews; and having fully competent people in all positions (project management roles).

Samphire said: “We don’t assume we will win the Premiership with non-competent people in positions on a football pitch – why do we assume project success by fielding non-competent people on the project management field?

“And in this respect, the role of senior managers and board members is crucial. They need to be fully competent in their ‘project role’ to achieve project success. Good governance is not just about having a good project manager – he or she is only one player on the pitch.”

Delivering good governance comes mainly through a change of culture, behaviours and relationships, Samphire told us. “Yes, you do need a coherent structure and processes for project management that transcend the business, but you need a culture and behaviour of people that actually want to do things in the right way.

“You could have the best structure in the world, and all the right review or authorisation bodies set up, but if the behaviour is wrong – and someone wants to play a game or circumvent lessons learned and good practice – then good governance is destroyed. For me, the culture is one of the most important things – and this has to be driven from the top, as the board members sit at the apex of governance. Only the senior people can set, reward and enforce a culture of transparency, openness, collaboration, performance focus, empowerment, single point accountability, role adherence, ethical working, etc.”

Samphire told PSE that, unfortunately, there are good and bad examples of governance in both the public and private sector. However, he does not feel that one delivers good governance more than the other.

“The private sector tends to be a lot more robust about governance, because it matters so much to the bottom line and their reputation. In this respect private sector [companies] are better at stopping projects early when they need to be stopped – too many public sector projects are allowed to continue even if the original business cases on which they were justified have been shot to pieces.

“Also, at times in the public sector, governance can be overly bureaucratic. Organisations try to take all the risks out of a situation, whereas the private sector tends to make more risk-based decisions with regards to their governance – and even do things that may be considered a shortcut, but are commercially appropriate.”

Effective governance

“One of the problems that organisations are grappling with is: how much is good enough?” he said. 

What is necessary will vary from organisation to organisation. There are many factors to consider: marketplace, stakeholders, size, numbers, maturity, risk appetite, management style, history, personalities, competence, to name a few.

The overall purpose of effective governance is to ensure an organisation’s project portfolio is aligned to and delivers against its core objectives, and is delivered effectively – maximising value, using competent resources, is transparent to the board and key stakeholders and is sustainable.

Samphire suggested that, traditionally, members of senior teams have at times neglected the principles of good governance until things go wrong. Then they “suddenly wake up and panic is let loose”.

“I’ve met some board members who say we’re not really concerned with projects – projects are ‘managed over there’. However, I feel they have missed the point,” he said. “When boards are investing in change and projects that will impact their bottom line and reputation – be it private or public sector – they have a duty to their shareholders/stakeholders to care.

“In smaller organisations, I would expect the board to be intimate about all their projects. However, in larger organisations with larger portfolios, I would expect a governance hierarchy where responsibility for governance of some projects is delegated – so the board still has visibility of the most significant strategic projects, but is assured that all others have an appropriate delegated level of governance, but with a link back to the top.

“This helps make sure you don’t have projects that are sat out there on their own,” he said.

“For me, good governance is fundamental to project success. The mission that I’m on is to help organisations understand what good governance looks like for them, and why it is important for businesses and organisations (and the board), to embody the principles and learn from the past.”

To counter governance (project) failures, Samphire suggested that senior teams could, at the starting point of a project, be a little more circumspect. Instead of thinking everything is going to go right, imagine the worst case scenario, reflect on the normal reasons for failure, revisit lessons learned from previous projects and ask what special steps are being taken to address the normal reasons for failure upfront, he suggested. And then during projects, they should ensure they remain conscious that things will change, and keeping asking the same questions.

“This good governance approach can be taken by any board or senior leadership team. In this way they can demonstrate their overall responsibility and pro-activeness,” said Samphire.

“Ultimately, the board is accountable for good governance and has to ensure the right process, competences, culture and behaviours are in place.”

Governance of Project Management Principles

  • The board has overall responsibility for the governance of project management.
  • The organisation differentiates between projects and non-project based activities.
  • Roles and responsibilities for the governance of project management are defined clearly.
  • Disciplined governance arrangements, supported by appropriate cultures, methods, resources and controls are applied throughout the project life cycle. Every project has a sponsor.
  • There is a demonstrable coherent and supporting relationship between the project portfolio and the business strategy and policies, for example ethics and sustainability.
  • All projects have an approved plan containing authorisation points at which the business case, inclusive of cost, benefits and risk is reviewed. Decisions made at authorisation points are recorded and communicated.
  • Members of delegated authorisation bodies have sufficient representation, competence, authority and resources to enable them to make appropriate decisions.
  • Project business cases are supported by relevant and realistic information that provides a reliable basis for making authorisation decisions.
  • The board or its delegated agents decide when independent scrutiny of projects or project management systems is required and implement such assurance accordingly.
  • There are clearly defined criteria for reporting project status and for the escalation of risks and issues to the levels required by the organisation.
  • The organisation fosters a culture of improvement and of frank internal disclosure of project management information.
  • Project stakeholders are engaged at a level that is commensurate with their importance to the organisation and in a manner that fosters trust.
  • Projects are closed when they are no longer justified as part of the organisation’s portfolio.

 Source: APM publication ‘Directing Change’

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