Project Fear

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The UK public sector currently struggles to provide IT and project management. From NHS Records to the Emergency Services Network, and from the Disclosure and Barring Service to e-borders, the Government has been responsible for a litany of project management, delivery, and implementation failures stretching back over many years. On their own, these failures occasionally make the news — buried after the latest political intrigue and guaranteed to elicit no more than an eye roll from most. Yet each one of these failures matters: they represent a forgone opportunity for change, a promise to the public not being realised, or spending not achieving what it was intended to do.

Indeed, government institutions seem rather flat-footed when it comes to project management. Repetitive failure matters more when, for much of the last decade, the Government has been making the case for spending restraint. When your pounds need to stretch even further than before, the ones you actually spend should be done so wisely. And, given that the political narrative has recently (regrettably) swung towards raw spending totals and inputs, the focus on how we spend, or what we achieve, has been lost at the very top. Prime Minister’s Question Time has recently felt like an arms race, characterised by evermore inflated amounts to spend, and little focus on how we spend it.

And that is why the travails of public-sector project delivery are so frustrating. In the last couple of years, the select committee I sit on (the one charged with overseeing that value-for-money test), Public Accounts, has dealt with nine separate instances of project failures, costing the taxpayer over £7.5 billion pounds and collectively causing 34 years of project delays. That’s £7.5 billion of money that has effectively been written off. Or, in crude terms, money that could have funded a penny off corporation tax for a year, the building of 21 new hospitals, the funding of 17,000 new police officers for the next ten years, or the ability to plug the social- care gap for the remainder of this parliament.

Of course, project failure is nothing new. The public are relatively inured to poor project delivery precisely because they have seen decades of it before. And, whilst those at the most senior level of politics have failed to focus on value for money, there has been a valuable continuing effort further down to build on the greater commercial focus first applied by Francis Maude in the 2010–2015 parliament. Credit should go to those people for some successes. This paper neither seeks perfection nor full success in project delivery. Yet, we need a renewed approach to the reduction of project failure in the public sector. We need to decrease inefficiency, to reform public-sector delivery mechanisms properly, and to shift the focus back on to how we spend money, rather than just how much.

To this end, this paper proposes a five-point plan for project-delivery improvement:

  • Ending the passivity at the heart of the civil service, by making departmental permanent secretaries fully accountable for project delivery;
  • Formally linking senior civil-service remuneration to the achievement of project objectives;
  • Transforming the Infrastructure Projects Authority into a centralised delivery arm, headed by a government chief operating officer;
  • Empowering MPs to take greater involvement in the monitoring of projects during implementation, rather than simply criticising at the end — through the creation of a specific Projects Monitoring Select Committee, and;
  • Instituting a focus on project-management skills development within the civil service.In short: the age of projects losing hundreds of millions of pounds, followed by the responsible senior civil servants being promoted to Downing Street, must end.Project management, delivery, and implementation across the public sector will never be perfect. It can, however, be much better. Making it so could unlock of billions of pounds to reduce tax, or to spend on public services.

    Click here to read the paper