The Major Projects Authority was set up in 2011 to monitor over 200 projects worth a combined £376 billion, but a report last week published by the Committee of Public Accounts revealed only one in three was delivered on time and to budget.
The timing of this report is welcome, as the whole area of major projects and programmes in public services needs and deserves significantly greater political and managerial focus. This is best evidenced by the change, over only a few years, in the proportion of public spending affected by major projects – from a few per cent to impacting the majority of £700 billion of annual expenditure.
The paucity of evidence or comment on value – as opposed to cost – is telling and deeply concerning. I suspect further work in this area would uncover difficult messages – over the way major projects are initiated, the weak incentives for the “best staff” to work on them and the weaknesses in management information used to drive financial and approval decisions.
But it is encouraging to read of the progress already made in the short life of the Major Projects Authority (MPA), with significant steps made to systemise and embed assurance and to train the project leadership community of senior responsible officers in government.
The broad suggestion of the MPA team of professionals needing more resources to perform their role is welcome, as transparent assurance is essential to improve project outcomes. In research we recently undertook, only half of the UK’s senior directors or executives working on change or transformation projects worth more than £10 million and seen as critical to the future of the business, claim a better than 70 per cent success rate with these initiatives and only 7 per cent judge them to be fully successful.
It would be good to see assurance “teeth” bared by cancelling more projects in the early stages. This would help to demonstrate that the sector is trying to innovate and take risks and is also capable of controlling those risks by not being swept along by momentum in every case.
The affirmation of the Major Projects Leadership Academy is good news and it will help to build the skills and leadership potential of these senior figures. The Public Accounts Committee has added its voice to concerns over the ability to retain these individuals and this should spark a wider look at workforce incentives, and the culture of innovation needed to allow these individuals to flourish in public services.
☛ Alasdair Ramage is principal consultant at Moorhouse