Project Management Rowing Boat Challenging UK Government

Having reviewed the first annual report from the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority (MPA)   I am left with a distinct feeling that we have a rowing boat (MPA) trying to take a super tanker (Government + Civil Service) onto a new course and direction!

At the highest level it is great to see David Pitchford (Executive Director, MPA) and his team at the MPA looking to shed some light on the challenges that the UK Government have in delivering “major projects” (a mere £353.7 Billion worth in the GMP Portfolio of 191 currently being considered).

The fact that this is a “proactive” activity which gives a high level heads up and thus hopefully raises the bar in terms of the need for accountability, it  strikes me as something we all should welcome; although reading around the web and the press the point seems to have been lost by many politicians & commentators and it is instead being used for politicking and a stick to beat up the Government of the day for their poor execution record!

Taking the politics out of the discussion, delivery of projects and complex projects has long been an issue for UK Governments of every colour and belief whether that be through lack of scope, poor procurement, poor planning and execution etc…; so it strikes me as a good initiative to be more open whilst the projects are in progress rather than having to wait for the National Audit Office to come picking at the bones with the benefit of hindsight long after the damage has been done.

Looking at the RAG report and analysis is in many ways pointless as they are 6+ months old and every department will have a defence of their position and how things have been improved since the audit was carried out. A result in itself? The fact that they have been challenged and either had to correct or defend a position is surely a healthy position and part of a solid philosophy when delivering projects with any level of complexity.

The more interesting/scary part of the report for me comes under the section “Progress to date: facts and figures” where the subject of leadership is discussed specifically senior responsible offices (SROs) and project directors (PDs).  Whilst any organisation has to cope with an element of turnover, the lack of appropriate numbers of SROs and PDs can only exaggerate this issue and substantially increase the associated risk profile. 7 SROs, responsible for 29 projects worth £67.2 Billion must bring into question how effectively these projects are being run and governed? Is addressing the training, support and retention of these individuals enough? By their own best practise statements of 1 SRO and 1 PD per major project it is time to get a hiring plan in place as well!

The Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA) in association with Sa?d Business School University of Oxford and Deloitte which was launched in February 2012 is an interesting concept (I wonder if this will this become part of the Capita portfolio?) but I really wonder if the Civil Service can ever become a world-class delivery engine? Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the UK Civil Service, stated back in February 2012 that

The Civil Service is about a lot more than policy – it’s about implementation and delivery – making a real difference to people’s lives. I believe passionately in the ability of the Civil Service to drive through these big projects, without always having to turn to expensive external consultants….”

Is this not being disrespectful to both career civil servants and career project management practitioners if we are to believe that these people can be both at the same time!

It strikes me that the Government really needs to make a big decision and to decide if they want to have the in-house capability to deliver major projects to a world-class standard. If this is the case then they should separate the “policy people” from the “delivery people” and set up a separate structure, grading and remuneration platform that supports this objective. I am sure that with the right environment there would no shortage of excellent candidates who would thrive and be turned on by delivering major projects which “often break new ground and dwarf anything the private sector does in both scale and complexity”. What is that old saying about paying peanuts…? When you are running a portfolio of this size the best people are required and not paying for the best is surely a false economy?

If this isn’t the vision, bring in the Private sector? This appears to be the conundrum that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing with its program around Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) as reported by Karl West in the Sunday Times. This is a £15Billion annual budget that may be outsourced to a project management company (5 from USA & 1 UK have expressed an interest), because the MoD cannot pay competitive levels of remuneration to attract specialist project managers and contract negotiators into the current civil service structure.

Much of the content which is being reported and considered is not rocket science, nor a major leap forward in thinking, just an attempt to put in place some of the basis essentials that are required to manage even the most basic of projects, let alone complex ones!

Time to be brave and make a real step change decision Mr Maude & Co, we have the capacity to deliver this we just need a commitment to make it happen, tickling the surface just isn’t enough

photo credit: AstridWestvang via photopin cc

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  1. 05 June 2013

    Peter Hepworth has been appointed as CEO of the new joint venture company Cabinet Office is forming with Capita to run the Best Management Practice portfolio, including the ITIL® and PRINCE2® professional standards.

    The new joint venture company will own the intellectual property of the portfolio of Best Management Practice products, originally developed by the UK Civil Service. It will also assume the management and support of accredited training organisations, accredited certification organisations and examination institutes.

    – See more at:

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