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Why project delivery is vital in the public sector

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

Julian Smith, head of external affairs at the Association for Project Management (APM), writing here in a personal capacity, discusses some of Whitehall’s blunders down the years in this important field.

The National Audit Office (NAO) is the watchdog for central government finances. Its recent report ‘Delivering major projects in government’ starkly reinforced the important role of the Major Projects Authority, which seeks to minimise risk and improve delivery across the government’s riskiest projects. Those projects add up to about half a trillion pounds of value. This is not small beer. 

Where the NAO’s work is particularly telling is on benefits realisation. These blunt quotes from their study give a flavour: “Departments often could not track costs and benefits or measure the impact of their projects...Where departments measure performance, they generally emphasise how efficiently they delivered the output to time and cost and even then this is problematic as performance is often measured against early estimates, which are not robust and based on an incomplete understanding of the scope of the project. Departments often overlook whether the project has realised the intended benefits...” 

The Haldane Report of 1918, which recommended much of what we now regard as the fabric of modern government, commented: “We urge strongly that in all departments better provision should be made for enquiry, search and reflection before policy is defined and put into operation.” 

Nearly 100 years later, renowned politics academics Ivor Crewe and Anthony King published ‘The Blunders of our Governments’. After four years of research, Crewe and King had a big pile of policy wreckage from which to choose. 

Former permanent secretary Sir David Normington, himself no stranger to sorting out Whitehall messes, reviewed the book and commented: “A common feature of the ‘blunders’ is the extent to which policy development gets separated from the realities of the world [with]….little understanding of how people on the receiving end of the policy will behave or react – what the authors call, ‘cultural disconnect’. This is frequently made worse by ‘operational disconnect’.” 

The authors say: “No feature of the blunders we have studied stands out more prominently than the divorce between those who make policies and those charged with implementing them.” 

They add: “Most of the policy makers responsible for the blunders...assumed they had done the hard bit when they had decided what government policy should be. Clearly they were wrong.” 

There is one other factor that can seriously increase the risk: the authors call it ‘ministers as activists’. Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, ministers have been judged by how active they are: by their ability to get things done, to set short deadlines, to drive things forward. 

So, we have a picture of over-busy ministers generating and/or approving more and more proposals that are not sufficiently worked through as to likely cost, outputs or benefits. Project managers at the sharp end then have to make sense of this and ride out the changing, competing demands of successive ministers. 

In another review for the Fabian Society, Peter Stern drew an important conclusion: “Had the perpetrators of these blunders read one of the many books on project management, the outcomes could well have been more positive. 

“Indeed, it is not sufficient for politicians to have progressive policies; they also need to understand the methodologies which enable these policies to be efficiently implemented.” 

So I conclude with these questions: how far do we think this stark analysis is true of central government? And does the rest of the public sector have lessons from which we can all learn? How do we think that delivery can be improved in the public sector?

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


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