Big Society and Project Management

Last week I went along to a local Third Sector event run by a local council group, Tameside Third Sector Coalition. The Third Sector is the name given to charities, the voluntary sector, not for profit organisations and NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) and recently the Sector came under the spotlight with the announcements from government about Big Society. In recent communications from the Cabinet Office; “A cross-government policy programme will create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a Big Society that would roll back big government, bureaucracy and Whitehall power.”

I went along to the event to hear two keynote speakers – the Chief Executive of the Council Steven Pleasant and Seb Elsworth, Director of Strategy at ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations), specifically I wanted to understand what the Big Society philosophy was all about and how it may impact the project management industry.

Pleasant led the presentations with a look at recent survey results which polled people’s responses on “What does Big Society mean?” 36% of respondents believed that “Big Society is an idealised version of society that is realistic in some communities but unrealistic in others”; 25% believed that “Big Society is an achieveable attempt to create a society where people come together to improve life for their communities” whilst 9% believed “Big Society is a way of justifying public spending cuts”

All in all, Big Society is about shifting the power from central to local government and harnessing the local co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises to deliver essential services to the local community. With £470 million set to be spent over the next four years helping these local groups meet service delivery demands I was keen to understand just how these organisations will do that.

Seb Elsworth kicked off by talking about the opportunity for the Third Sector, saying that “after all they have been banging on the door of goverment for years now”, looking for a way to make a really difference. The belief is more and more local groups will have more opportunity to compete in public service delivery  and the key strengths the Third Sector brings is their focus on being “outcomes” driven.

Just taking those two points alone and you start to see the project management angles here – first, being able to compete for public service delivery in essence means competing through the tender process which in turn requires a stronger commercial, procurement and financial hat on. Bid and proposals have long been the beginning or initiation of projects therefore Third Sector (TS) organisations will need to ensure these skills are covered somewhere in their workforce. The second point – “outcomes”, this is the term used to describe the benefits delivered by a specific project or programme the TS organisation delivers. In order for TS organisations to compete they need to focus on driving more outcomes for each programme or project they deliver. A specific example was given of a Home from Hospital scheme from Age Concern where the objective was to reduce the number of elderly patients who faced readmission to hospital due to difficulties at home caring for themselves. The project figures, £500K to support 3000 people whereas readmission costs the NHS £3M. The outcomes for this project is not only the economic benefit but also welfare, health and social. So the Third Sector is focused on outcomes and benefits which strangely sounds very familiar to the things we live and breathe everyday in the project management world regardless of the sector we work in.

In order to deliver these outcomes in the Big Society philsophy, these TS organisations will have to think about these areas;

  1. Their vision – they need strong leadership to deliver in this Big Society new world order
  2. They need to be able to monitor and report on their outcomes
  3. They need to align their incentives e.g., elderly care aligns to NHS savings
  4. They need to shape the market and inform providers about their offers
  5. They need to take tough decisions on the organisation’s operating models
  6. They need to take up opportunities for partnerships with each other and with other sectors
  7. They need to take risks – manage the risks and use it to their advantage
  8. They need to be ready to tell what the ROI is, the tangible benefits, take measurements.

All in all there are a lot of challenges these groups will face; a lot of these challenges fall in to the project management area. Planning their projects to ensure they deliver the best outcomes and ensure project success; the ability to monitor, control and report throughout the project; the benefits realisation; the set up of delivery capability (the processes, people and tools); the risk management piece. The question remains though – how will this be funded? And more importantly how will they attract the right talent to work within the Third Sector?


Image © USACE Europe District and used with permission.

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