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Project leadership in the civil service – learning lessons and spreading good practice

Source: Public Sector Executive Feb/Mar 2015

Two senior project management professionals from the public sector are helping to create and deliver a new series of modules designed for a wide audience. PSE spoke to HMRC’s David Richardson, and Rob Blakemore from the Home Office, both of whom have roles with the Association for Project Management.

As PSE was going to press, the ‘People’ special interest group (SIG) of the Association for Project Management (APM) was preparing for the first in what they hope will be a series of presentations of new interactive training and information modules.

The ‘Leadership and Sponsorship – what, why, when and how?’ event on 12 February at Westminster Central Hall is being held in conjunction with the HMRC.

HMRC programme delivery leader and deputy head of profession for project and programme management (PPM), David Richardson – a committee member on the APM People SIG – has developed the ‘Leadership’ element.

He told us: “These new modules are intended as a session to provoke an interactive discussion. The session will include insights we’ve picked up over time while developing the leadership cadre here, as well as some thoughts on different leadership styles. It should be about storytelling, and getting people to share their experiences.”

Richardson is responsible for developing the professional capability of 1,200 PPM professionals across HMRC. He said: “In a business-as-usual operational area, you might be told to produce, say, 10,000 widgets and you’ve got the same workforce all the time, a fairly static group of suppliers and constant supply chain. That has its own challenges, but is relatively straightforward: it’s not the same as the challenge of being a middle manager and needing to have leverage over senior managers and junior staff and politicians, and, from where we sit, needing to get the public on board too.”

Talking about the value of the APM, Richardson said: “We think we’re unique in government, but we’re not – the private sector have got exactly the same challenges. I’m a big advocate of the APM, because of the networking opportunities to look outside of government.

“It’s easy to be negative about government projects and programmes, but we’re delivering stuff that’s much more complex – things that a lot of private sector companies wouldn’t touch because of the risk.”

‘Second career’

Rob Blakemore, a scientist by background who has had a 25-year Civil Service career, mostly with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) but more recently at the Home Office, sees project management as his ‘second career’. He is editing and overseeing the modules being developed and delivered by his fellow APM People SIG committee members, with chair Russel Jamieson.

Blakemore told us: “The Civil Service is taking PPM much more seriously than it did. The MoD, particularly on the procurement side down at Bristol, has taken project management very seriously for a number of years as a result of criticism in the press and from the National Audit Office. It has since put a lot of time, effort and money into training people, and making sure they are accredited to PRINCE2 and MSP (Managing Successful Programmes), wherever appropriate.

“The rest of government has I think been a bit slower – particularly here in Whitehall itself. It’s been slower to a) give PPM the priority it needs, and b) put the time and effort into training and retaining people with good PPM experience. But things are definitely changing, especially while the current government has been in power, as a result of the Civil Service reform plans. One of the priorities for that has been PPM skill.”

Major Projects Leadership Academy

The Home Office has recently launched its own PPM profession, to formalise and recognise people with PPM skills, and to treat it as a career path, in line with some other pioneering departments.

“The other thing that’s made a real difference,” he said, “has been the project academy, driven by the Cabinet Office. There is a project profession for the Senior Civil Service, and as part of that all senior responsible owners for programmes or projects, or who lead programmes and projects, now go through the Major Projects Leadership Academy programme, run by the Saïd Business School at Oxford.

“There is more awareness now of the proactive nature of project leadership: the need to ensure that projects are continually aligned with the strategy of the government, changes in the external environments – particularly technology changes – and providing customer focus.

“Rapid improvements have been driven by strategy but also by austerity. We have less money, and there is genuinely now more focus on providing priority customer services to our stakeholders, and thinking about what it is we can and should provide, and what we’re not going to provide.”

Blakemore is a member of scientific professional bodies as well as the APM, but said: “Of all the bodies I’m involved with, the APM is the most proactive, the most dynamic, and a really quite exciting society to be involved with.

“It’s a fantastically diverse group of people who probably would not work together in any other sort of professional context.”

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