A Princely Mess!

During the recent APM Conference I took the time to listen to a presentation by David Pitchford the Executive Director of Major Projects within the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) which sits within the Cabinet Office. If you have not come across the ERG you may recognise them under their former name OGC (The Office of Government Commerce) who amongst other things have been responsible for the promotion of Prince2, MSP, ITIL and other PPM methods.

Pitchford who took up this role in November 2009, opened his presentation by declaring that he would be going slightly off piste’ from the advertised theme of “Partnerships Produce Projects” and over the following 40 minutes he delivered an amazingly frank assessment of the state of major projects within the UK Government.

Whilst some significant high profile projects have already been scrapped by the new Government (ID Cards, BSF, E Borders & Nimrod) it would appear that there are still a significant number which are steaming ahead; the problem, as Pitchford pointed out is “nobody in the UK Government seems to know how many projects they have on the books, nor how much these are likely to cost!” He was able to tell the audience that after a significant effort the ERG had identified a Major Projects portfolio (“they think”). Their next challenge being how to work out how many Billions of pounds this portfolio has spent and the projected cost to complete, current estimates being between somewhere between £300-600 Billion!

So if that’s the position for “major” projects, we can probably assume there must be quite a few more ££BN/M that are in the full portfolio that have or have not yet been discovered? Pitchford went on to admit that they have no real idea of the total exposure, nor any idea of their relative prioritization! Let’s hope that the commercial terms are better than those agreed for the two new aircraft-less carriers we are currently buying!

Pitchford went on to say that there is an obvious lack of PPM (Programme & Project Management) skills and experience within Government Departments and also many SRO’s (Senior Responsible Officers) who lack the necessary experience to deliver the projects to which they are assigned. He then went on to tell us what he has discovered so far regarding the reasons for failure of UK Government projects;

  1. Political pressure
  2. No business case
  3. No agreed budget
  4. 80% of projects launched before 1,2 & 3 have been resolved
  5. Sole solution approach (options not considered)
  6. Innovation gamble (never been done before)
  7. Lack of Commercial capability  – (contract / administration)
  8. No plan
  9. No timescale
  10. No defined benefits

(A list not dissimilar to that identified in the Arras People Project Management Benchmark Report 2010)

So, in these stricken times when we are told the Government has no money, do they have a plan to get this sorry mess under some level of control?

Pitchford went on to tell us that the ERG is formulating an approach and is hopeful that the way forward will be signed off by the end of November (2010). Their aim is to have a function at the centre of Government that will in the first instance Control, Prioritize and Re-Scope/Stop the current basket of projects. This function will have the challenge of creating a partnership across government; pushing out its approach across all departments, breaking down silos and building relationships. In addition he stated that it is clear that they will need to develop PPM capability across the Government departments to improve project performance! (It would appear that the “training” has been focussed on the “technical” aspects of PPM rather than developing competencies, again a feature from the PMBR 2010)

Is it not time to call a halt to the tolerance of Government of project failure? With the removal of waste, high on the agenda the Government must start setting up projects to succeed rather than fail! It must also open up a culture where honest assessment and challenge is the norm, maybe then reviews like the Gateway process will start to deliver? The culture of “making decisions correctly” rather than “making the right decision” needs to be consigned to the past!

The idea of a Central Projects Group at the heart of Government sounds like a positive step forward, the challenges though will be plentiful, not least:

  • The ability to create a “tight team” and the environment for it to be successful!
  • The CPG will need real teeth, staffed with PPM practitioners – not consultants – a small group which includes the best the industry has to offer regardless of whether they’ve worked in the public sector or not.
  • Remuneration should not be an issue – if the best PPM Talent is to be attracted, the going rate should be paid for this expertise. After all, even a 1% saving on £300BN is a pretty substantial figure!

The challenge is substantial, the potential savings may be enormous and success should be demanded. It is no longer optional.

Image © Perry French and used with permission.
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  1. Flabbergasting!
    There are regular #pmot conversations on Twitter about Governance. Incredible that Government and its departments don’t appear to have any.
    The point about staffing projects with best in the industry real practitioners regardless of public sector experience is a very valid one. Solid experience is necessary and it’s time to bust that myth of it having to be true-blue public sector wide open. That’s going to take a huge shift in attitude and more private-sector people in public-sector decision making roles.

    Thanks for sharing the information, Deanne

  2. When the press talks about government projects (Olympics, Crossrail, etc.), it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. This article gives insight into an important subject.

    If there’s ‘an obvious lack of PPM (Programme & Project Management) skills and experience within Government Departments and also many SRO’s (Senior Responsible Officers) who lack the necessary experience to deliver the projects to which they are assigned’, I’d suggest training courses (even though budgets are tight) and better recruitment processes.

  3. This is a good overview of how government is looking at the world of programmes and projects. Now 6+ months after the change in administration it’s not surprising that the ‘fresh look’ at programmes is highlighting such issues. None of this is new of course, the NAO put out a report in June 2010 that included many of these points and it has long been known that many SROs are either unsuited to their roles or simply don’t appreciate what’s involved – or both!

    My own observation is that programme and project management competences are mixed across the departments with some good practice occurring in places. Unfortunately it’s not common-place and there are areas where there is very poor understanding of what’s involved in managing projects and even less appreciation of the commercial and procurement aspects.

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