The National Audit Office, and many other evaluators and report writers, must be heartily sick of finding, time and time again, that projects had gone badly wrong because senior officials had failed to undertake very basic project initiation and planning. As the old saying goes: "Failing to plan is planning to fail". This web page summarises the key elements of this planning process.
First, you need to sit down, think hard about, write down, and agree the following with key stakeholders, including Ministers:
- What is the result you want to achieve?
- What are the causal factors that influence that result?
- What policy interventions will make a difference?
- What is the evidence?
- Who do you rely on to deliver?
You should also think hard, up front, about the following three critical factors for successful delivery.
Critical Success Factor 1: The right scope: Any investment of time or money must be linked to clear outcomes that support strategic objectives. And goals must be realistic and based on knowledge of what is achievable.
Critical Success Factor 2: Adequate skills and resources, matched to the demands of the program/project.
Critical Success Factor 3: Good processes for delivery based on approaches that are likely to work.
Planning for Delivery
Once you have thought long and hard about the above issues, and ensured that Ministers and other key stakeholders agree with your conclusions, you can then settle down to detailed planning. The following are the nine main questions you will need to answer. You should therefore prepare and circulate, including to Ministers, a detailed plan which answers each of these questions.
- What is the scope? What is to be delivered - and when?
- What resources and capabilities (people, physical resources and funding) will you need?
- What are the potential sources of such capabilities?
- Who will carry out the required processes and policies?
- Who will be accountable for what?
- Which similar projects have succeeded – and why?
- What is an acceptable balance of cost, benefit and risk?– and how should they be managed?
- How you will work with other delivery agents and stakeholders to share information and knowledge?
- How will you monitor and report progress? What performance measures and incentives will you need?
Finally, remember the very well known frequent causes of failure:
- unclear objectives and success criteria;
- insufficient involvement of key stakeholders;
- weak risk management;
- unclear roles and responsibilities;
- lack of appropriate skills;
- weak financial control - see further below;
- poor market knowledge;
- inadequate understanding of IT challenges - see further below.
These failures won’t happen on your watch, will they?!
Costing Major Projects
Those responsible for signing off major projects, and defending their decisions, are all too aware that their task is made more and more difficult by
- Increasing complexity (and an appetite for innovation creating even more uncertainty) which make it more difficult to produce estimates;
- Pressure - especially from the media - to make firm commitments early on about how much a project will cost; and
- A tendency towards optimism from project teams over what can be delivered and how much it will cost.
There are no easy ways round these obstacles but I can recommend the NAO's Survival Guide to Challenging Costs in Major Projects written especially for senior civil servants but containing much advice equally applicable to their opposite numbers in the private and voluntary sectors.
Only 13% of large government software projects are successful.
Government agencies all confront similar challenges, facing budget and staffing constraints while struggling to modernize legacy technology systems that are out-of-date, inflexible, expensive, and ineffective. I strongly recommend De-risking Custom Technology Projects - a handbook for executives, legislators and other “non-technical” decision-makers who fund or oversee government technology projects. It can help you set these projects up for success by asking the right questions, identifying the right outcomes, and equally important, empowering you with a basic knowledge of the fundamental principles of modern software design.
Making Your Policies Stick
It can often be difficult to stay focused on your long-term policy goals - not least in government where politicians often prefer reinvention to staying the course. But it does not have to be this way. There are a range of things that you can do to make it more likely that a policy will endure and achieve what it set out to achieve. The IfG's report Making Policy Stick looks at some interesting case studies.
As well as the documents mentioned above, anyone involved in a sizeable project should read the NAO's 2020 report Lessons learned from Major Programmes.