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How on earth could they let that happen?!

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John Manzoni article

In the last issue of CSQ, Sir David Normington reviewed The Blunders of Our Governments. John Manzoni the new Chief Executive of the Civil Service wrote this article when he was the head of the Major Projects Authority. It discusses what the organisation is doing to prevent such blunders and improving how projects are run.

I read Sir David Normington’s review of The Blunders of Our Governments with interest and trepidation. Interest because he draws from the book the critical conclusions as to why blunders happen. Trepidation because he concludes that, for sure, another blunder is brewing – and someone will say ‘how on earth could they let that happen?!’ Sir David asks: “Why then aren’t the lessons learned?” and “Why don’t things get better?” New to government as head of the Major Projects Authority (MPA), I’d like to give you an idea of what we are doing to try and avoid the next blunder and why improving seems to take so long.

As the book states: ‘When governments blunder, their blunders frequently make headlines.’ The majority of the largest projects in government are not building or buying things; they are transforming things - and these projects are by nature more complex. Even the relatively simple buy and build projects in the public sector tend to have more stakeholders, longer timeframes, and bigger numbers than many private sector projects.

Accepting that as context, we must strive to do better, and The Blunders of Our Governments should be a wake up call to those of us who aim to improve execution. But this will not be easy. The top two hundred projects in government today add up to nearly £500bn: delivering new railways, better schools, the latest in medical treatment, and IT development projects to improve public services.

Our aim here at the MPA is to ensure good execution of these projects. We help teams clarify their objectives, understand the resources they require, and give them the confidence to identify challenges and develop solutions. One of the ways we do this is by offering candid red, amber and green ratings to projects, to help project leaders to identify and address problems early on.

We are also committed to publishing extensive data on all of our major projects, thereby helping people to ask the right questions. We work closely with departments to ensure that their projects are in the best position to succeed. Over the last 12 months we have undertaken over 250 reviews. Each one identifies issues and makes specific recommendations. If necessary, we undertake follow up visits to ensure actions are taken. In addition to making the recommendations, we are now helping projects to get the right kind of support, whether that be from project leaders, provision of specific technical expertise, management advice or access to outside lessons or data sources.

This has resulted in improvements in over half of the projects we identified as having the most significant challenges. These projects include our work with the Department of Health to improve patient administration systems, and with HM Revenue and Customs’ ‘One Click’ project, which will bring together many businesses’ tax needs in one place.

Capability and the Profession

The Blunders of Our Governments identifies ‘cultural and operational disconnects’ as sources of blunders - often because policy development does not consider implementation. Policy is seen as the way in which departments address strategic objectives. Project delivery is focussed on execution and developing the various routes to implementation, including: appraising the options, deciding the best value for money option and then developing plans to meet policy objectives. If we want to avoid disconnects, we must ensure that a key part of policy development is the assessment of these project delivery options.

Added to that major projects require outstanding leaders who have the skills and experience to manage complex relationships, to allocate scarce resources, and to solve problems as they arise. We have already enrolled 250 project leaders into our Major Projects Leadership Academy to address our aim of creating a recognised cadre of experts who can move across different government projects. Around a hundred of these leaders will have graduated by the end of 2014. Another programme, for leaders of priority projects or less experienced civil servants, will be launched in the middle of 2015.

Despite the Civil Service offering some of the most exciting projects in the country, we fail to attract enough of the best project delivery professionals. We need to create career paths, and learning opportunities that help us to attract, retain, and develop these leaders. This way, more individuals will have the delivery experience to build implementation into the thinking as policy is developed, so blunders should become less common.

Strategic prioritisation

Sir David sees what the authors call ‘activist Ministers’ as drivers for change - but also a cause of blunders. Ministers are always going to be judged on ‘getting things done’, yet departments will continue to be required to deliver more for less. We can’t let ‘activism’ or efficiency drives be an excuse for poor delivery. The Civil Service needs to be more realistic in understanding the resources required to achieve any given outcome, and better at thinking through the options and delivery mechanisms at an earlier stage. To ‘speak truth to power’ we have to know the real truth.

This means being clear about our portfolio, the resources we need, where the real risks and constraints lie, and how we can reprioritise to meet shifting demands. This isn’t only about tools and charts; it’s about realistic and robust discussions with decision makers around the challenges associated with any particular policy.

Front-end loading

Thinking through properly what is required during the initial phase of project initiation is crucial. We can then ensure that the project is clearly linked to policy priorities, that deliverability is understood, that the benefits and risks are made clear, and that delivery options are flexible. Every new project coming onto the government’s Major Projects Portfolio is subject to a Project Validation Review.

This is a good start, but sometimes there is a reluctance to ensure sufficient resources are deployed early enough. We have plans to strengthen these entry reviews, and to gain a better understanding from departments of what is really needed to deliver.


At the same time, complex accountability structures and unclear lines of responsibility within our major projects make delivering them more challenging. With this in mind, Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) will be issued a formal letter of appointment to clarify their role, accountability and tenure. This means they can have more informed conversations with decision makers and articulate what is and isn’t possible within the sphere of their control.

A blunder is brewing...?

As Sir David states, ‘if risks are never taken, then nothing will ever change’. The government is always going to undertake large-scale projects to deliver complex policy; realistically some blunders are probably going to occur. We have made a good start at addressing the causes of blunders -- but there is still much to be done. We have a clear set of priorities, and we now have to accelerate our actions. The MPA’s maxim “right projects, done right” is an important part of the future agenda.

You can hear more about John’s plans in his new role as Chief Executive of the Civil Service here

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