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Some of the most ambitious projects of the next decade will be linked to devolution

Source: PSE - Oct/Nov 2015

Julian SmithJulian Smith, head of external affairs at the Association for Project Management, though writing here in a personal capacity, explains why the devolution agenda will bring new challenges for project managers and directors.

The public sector stands on the verge of the biggest constitutional shake-up for many years, as the government loosens the ties on local government enough to allow (incomplete) devolution to the cities and regions of England. At the same time, public sector jobs and services will continue to shrink under austerity.

It is a very significant challenge. Local and central government will need to ensure that they have enough staff skilled in partnership building, community engagement and particularly project management. They will need to ensure that the people who will manage the complex change projects needed in the coming years will be supported by the political and officer leadership.

Devolution in a time of cuts

Somehow, the public sector has to square the responsibility and opportunity of devolution with the imposed imperative of ongoing cuts. The auditors of Liverpool City Council, Grant Thornton, have said: “It is possible that during 2017-18 the council will no longer have sufficient funds to deliver any discretionary services.”

Manchester City Council has said it has already had to make £250m of cuts between 2011 and 2015, and will make further cuts of £55m. It said: “We anticipate that we will need to lose the equivalent of around 600 full-time jobs, in addition to 3,000 jobs lost in the past four years.”

At the same time, Manchester has participated in the movement for a Greater Manchester Combined Authority and a Devolution Agreement. This, in the authority’s measured words, is “prioritised to support economic growth across Greater Manchester and include[s] actions specifically designed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of transport and economic development”.

The Devolution Agreement (‘Devo Manc’) is the road map for the 10 Manchester authorities to come together under an elected mayor to plan and co-ordinate the wellbeing of the city-region.

Drilling down the agreement shows the Treasury locking the Manchester authorities into a set of disciplines. For example, the earn-back scheme (within the current envelope of just £30m a year for 30 years) requires Greater Manchester and HMT (the Treasury) to commission a joint “independent assessment of the economic benefits and economic impact of the investments made under the scheme, including whether the projects have been delivered on time and to budget….The next five-year tranche of funding will be unlocked if HMT is satisfied that the independent assessment shows the investment to have met the objectives and contributed to national growth.”

The Treasury also requires “…evaluation of the impact of the devolution agreement, including the new governance arrangements. This could take the form of, for example, Randomised Control Trials for the different policy interventions, including the Housing Investment Fund and the other devolved functions agreed as part of this deal.”

Finance and governance are important, but so are the processes used

The Local Government Association (LGA) is ambitious about the benefits of what it calls ‘DevoNext’, its campaign to broaden and deepen devolution. It believes that a new devolutionary settlement can “deliver £11bn in savings for the public purse through radical reform, generate at least £80bn in growth and 700,000 new jobs, and build half a million new homes”.

The LGA is currently less explicit than the Manchester Devolution Agreement about how this significant opportunity will be managed and evaluated. Much of the discussion is currently about funding and financing regimes and governance arrangements. Fair enough – these matters are very important and set the overall context. But sooner or later, local government should apply itself to the processes it will use to deliver new forms of public and private delivery at a time when much of its time and resource will be spent managing the implementation of significant cuts.

For many years, the most obvious and significant projects in this country have been the ones that involve major and sometimes breathtaking feats of construction and engineering. This country is showing it can really get to grips with delivering major projects such as the Olympics and Crossrail.

It may be that some of the most ambitious projects of the next decade – HS2 aside – will be to deliver the great venture of devolution to the English cities and regions in ways that recast the economy to deliver the jobs, homes and skills this country needs.

So watch this space – project, programme and portfolio management can offer the means to make devolution work as a reality for people, communities and businesses. As a country we will need to invest in the skills of project directors and managers so that the practical delivery of devolution can happen on the scale required.

(Top image: Chancellor George Osborne, pictured here on railway tracks in Manchester – the city-region to which he has given the greatest devolutionary powers)


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