Good governance is focused on setting the ‘right’ rules and objectives for an organisation, management is about working within those rules to achieve the objectives. Prudent governors also require assurance that the rules are being followed and the objectives achieved (for more see the six functions of governance)
Within this governance framework, getting the ethics and culture of an organisation right comes before anything else – it has far more to do with people, and culture than it does with process and policing! But crafting or changing culture and the resultant behaviours is far from easy and requires a carefully crafted long term strategy supported from the very top of the organisation. The journey is difficult, but achievable, and can pay major dividends to the organisation concerned. One interesting example of this approach in practice is the implementation of effective major project management by the UK government.
The problems with megaprojects
The challenges and issues associated with megaprojects are well known, we recently posted on one aspect of this in the reference case for management reserves. The source materials used in this post clearly show that UK government has been acutely aware of the issues for many years as does any review of the UK National Audit Office’s reports into failed government projects. At the 2016 PGCS symposium in Canberra, Geraldine Barker, from the UK NAO offered an independent and authoritative overview of the UK perspective and experience from her review of the Major Projects Authority, on the approaches, challenges, and lessons to be learned in improving the performance of major projects at individual and portfolio levels. While there were still major issues, there had also been a number of welcome developments to address the issues including:
- Improvements to accountability with greater clarity about the roles of senior responsible owners;
- Investment by the Authority and departments to improve the capability of staff to deliver major projects, with departments reporting to us that they are seeing benefits from these initiatives;
- Increased assurance and recognition of the role that assurance plays in improving project delivery; and
- Initiatives to prevent departments from getting locked into solutions too early.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said in a report to the UK Parliament on 6 January 2016, “I acknowledge that a number of positive steps have been taken by the Authority and client departments. At the same time, I am concerned that a third of projects monitored by the Authority are red or amber-red and the overall picture of progress on project performance is opaque. More effort is needed if the success rate of project delivery is to improve”.
The major challenges identified in that report were to:
- Prevent departments making firm commitments on cost and timescales for delivery before their plans have been properly tested;
- Develop an effective mechanism whereby all major projects are prioritised according to strategic importance and capability is deployed to priority areas; and
- Put in place the systems and data which allow proper performance measurement.
The latest report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – IPA (formally the Major Projects Authority) has allowed the UK government to claim an improvement in its delivery of major projects, with the number of those at risk reducing from 44 to 38 in the past year.
The report says that there are 143 major projects on the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), worth £455.5bn and spread across 17 government departments.
The data shows a steady improvement in the way that government is delivering major projects:
- More than 60% of projects by whole-life cost are likely to be successfully delivered;
- Since last year’s report, the number of at risk projects has reduced from 44 to 38, which continues to be an improvement from 48 the previous year;
The data shows signs of steady improvement in the way government is delivering major projects. The question is how was this achieved?
The answer is ‘slowly’ looking from the outside there seem to be three parallel processes working together to change the culture of the UK civil service:
- The first is making project management ‘attractive’ to senior executives. Since 2000 the government has been working to develop the internal skills needed to allow the deployment of capable ‘Senior Responsible Owners’ (SRO) on all of its major projects including establishing a well-respected course for SROs. The Major Projects Leadership Academy was developed in 2012 (first graduates 2013) and is run in partnership with the Saïd Oxford Business School and Deloitte. The academy builds the skills of senior project leaders across government, making it easier to carry out complex projects effectively. In the future, no one will be able to lead a major government project without completing the academy programme.
- The second has been making the performance of its major projects public. This includes an ongoing challenge to acquire realistic and meaningful data on performance (still a challenge) and is most obvious in the annual report from the Major Projects Authority. Their fifth report is now available for downloading.
- Finally, skills development and robust challenges are put to departments to ensure adequate front end planning is completed before government funds are committed to a project.
This process is not quick and given the risky nature of major projects will never deliver a 100% success rate, but the steady change in attitudes and performance in the UK clearly show that ‘good governance’ backed by a sound multi-faceted strategy focused on the stakeholders engaged in the work will pay dividends. Proponents advocating for this type of improvement have many challenges to deal with, not the least of which is the fact that as data quality improves, the number of problems that will be visible increase – add the glare of publicity and this can be politically embarrassing! However, as the UK reports show, persistence pays off.
 For a definition of megaprojects see: https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/differentiating-normal-complex-and-megaprojects/