The British government spends an unfathomable £670 billion every year – and often does so in ways that are wasteful and misguided – So begins the cover blurb for Conundrum – Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong by Richard Bacon MP and Christopher Hope. The book contains a depressing and all too familiar catalogue of badly designed and implemented major programs, but its central thesis is that delivery is too often the poor relation to policy for both Ministers and civil servants. The following advice does not aim to remedy all the faults identified by Messrs Bacon and Hope, but – if you were to follow it – it would certainly improve matters.
To begin at the beginning - the words ‘program’ and ‘project’ are, in most cases, interchangeable. The key thing is that they conceptually follow on from a policy decision – a decision that will hopefully have taken account of the practical, financial and other factors that will constrain the deliver of that policy. (Click here for advice on policy design.) In theory, a program is large scale, and often consists of a number of projects. But a project can be pretty big too, and can certainly appear very challenging to those in charge of it. Programs and projects should therefore be managed in pretty much the same way, using the approach outlined below.
Significant projects should of course be led by someone with proper project management training and experience, and the civil service has recruited a good number of these in recent years. Mainstream officials are more likely to be heavily involved in the policy development and project definition phase of major projects and then acting as the principal customer of a specialist project/program manager. But almost any civil servant could find him/herself responsible for a smaller project. In either case the following advice is very relevant.
But it is first worth noting that the initiation of a major government project can be a very sudden affair. Presidents and Prime Ministers feel under great pressure to announce dramatic goals. Some of these work out OK, such as Kennedy’s 1961 belief “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Sea of Tranquility in 1969. Some don’t turn out quite so well. I’ll leave you to think of your own UK examples.
And many lesser mortals can fall into the trap of what the World Bank tactfully calls appraisal optimism – the presentation of best case scenarios including under-estimated costs and timescales, and over-estimated benefits, in order to get projects started. There are plenty of examples, including London’s Barbican Centre (estimated cost £8m, actual cost £187m), the Humber Bridge (£28m/£151m), the Jubilee Line extension (£2.1bn/£3.5bn) and the British Library (£74m/£511m). These examples perhaps support the seductive proposition that nothing would ever get built without a little massaging of the facts and figures, but such behaviour inevitable leads to later criticism of the officials responsible for the project, rather than the politicians who pressed for it to proceed.
The National Audit Office has listed the following perennial problems:
- Civil servants may be reluctant to highlight unrealistic timescales or the need for further pilots and planning, as they want to be seen as ‘can do’.
- This can generate pressure to hurry the implementation of reforms and projects.
- However, sustainable changes to public services needs a strategic perspective, careful planning and sound implementation.
- If a department can only move at a slow pace, it can be detrimental to value for money to pretend otherwise.
- A department may also only be able to take on so much change at once.
- There is no deliberate resistance to Ministers’ demands. Instead, there is unacknowledged reality.
And here is the NAO’s summary of what happens when officials ignore inconvenient facts – as they do:
- There is pressure to present the unlikely upside as the most likely result.
- Major projects under-deliver on benefits and overshoot on time and cost.
- There is optimism-bias.
- Changing requirements lead to delays and increases in costs, for example in major defence projects.
It follows, therefore, that you should do your best to persuade an enthusiastic Minister that more haste equals less speed, even though they may feel that you are dragging your feet and/or seeing unnecessary obstacles. They may however recognise the thought that there is a natural rhythm to a good project – nice and slow and cautious at the beginning, so that rapid pre-planned progress can be made at the end. It is a trite but accurate observation that a new building will soon be finished after its foundations have been laid. Ministers will still need to make those big bold announcements, if only to forestall the announcement of a similar ambition by a rival. But such announcements should explicitly allow you time to research and plan the project in some detail.
There is another trap, in that some projects look to be obviously sensible, when a bit of research would have shown the opposite. The classic example is the 1970 Scared Straight! projects in the States, where juvenile delinquents were exposed to inmates in local prisons with a view to persuading the kids to turn away from a life of crime. Nearly 40 years on, these projects are still being started, although the evidence strongly suggests that they increase criminality, not reduce it. (See also my advice on unintended consequences.)
Click here to access a sensible checklist for each stage of a large project, including nine key questions that must be answered before there is full commitment to the desired objective.