Report on status of big Gov’t projects to be published at last

By Tony Collins

The Telegraph reports that the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is about to publish its first annual report – and it will reveal the status of schemes that include Universal Credit, says the article.

The Cabinet Office said in 2011 that the MPA’s annual report would be published by the end of December that year. In 2012 Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, told the Public Accounts Committee’s Conservative MP Richard Bacon that the MPA’s annual report would be published in June 2012.

But senior departmental  civil servants have objected repeatedly to the red-amber-green “traffic light” status of projects being published, which contradicts the wishes of Kerslake and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister.

One reason for the delay in publishing the MPA annual report is that Maude and Kerslake have been weighing objections to the reporting of the red-amber-green status against the need for departmental cooperation to implement civil service reforms.

From the Telegraph article it appears that Maude has persuaded (or forced) departmental heads to accept the publication of the traffic light status on big and risky projects. The Major Projects Authority reviews IT and other projects costing more than £50m.

The Telegraph says the MPA annual report will reveal Government troubleshooters’ concerns about multi-billion pound projects like the Universal Credit.

The article says the MPA annual report will show that about a third of projects it has reviewed are late or over budget. Says the Telegraph: “Government sources said that the MPA will show that management of big projects has improved significantly since 2010, when two-thirds of programmes were in trouble.

“But the report, expected later this month, will confirm that Whitehall ‘still has a long way to go’ to improve its handling of major projects, a source said.”

The article adds that publication of the annual report “follows a lengthy internal struggle between ministers and civil servants about the disclosure of problems with big Government schemes”.

Some ministers, says the article, are privately concerned that civil servants are bad at managing big, expensive projects but repeatedly cover up their failings and refuse to tell ministers about problems.  Disclosing “candid” assessments about big projects will improve management, ministers believe.

The Telegraph says that a “new publication scheme that will start later this month” will publicly rate each project at red, amber, or green. 

Each central department will be told to publish details of its major projects every six months, including the red-amber-green ratings and the data behind them, says the article.

The Telegraph quotes as a coalition source as saying: “Releasing a candid report about Whitehall’s major projects is a big and brave step for Government…”

Management of big projects better but still generally poor? 

Lord Browne, a lead non-executive in the Cabinet Office and the man appointed to recruit business leaders to Whitehall departmental boards, has criticised the management of major projects as “worryingly poor”.

He said that insufficient attention was given to identifying risks in the planning stage, and that there had been a “consistent failure” to appoint leaders with the right skills and experience.

Browne said the creation of the Major Projects Authority (MPA) in the Cabinet Office in 2011 had improved their delivery, but “nobody ever intervenes in a poor project soon enough” and that warning signs were often ignored or under-reported.

He called for an “ongoing and rigorous review process with real teeth” which would monitor measures of progress and call “time out” on failing projects, allowing them either to be fixed or stopped.

Browne said the government could learn from the private sector, where projects are scrutinised to a “very high standard” before work begins. In line with this, he suggested that the MPA should have a strengthened “stage-gate approval process” to ensure that projects achieve objectives.

He said that projects should not be allowed to begin until a team with the right skills – including a leader who had previously delivered a large, complex project – had been identified.

He also suggested that the MPA nominate leaders and veto unsuitable candidates. He said that expensive projects should “never be seen as a personal development opportunity”.

He advocated using pay, benefits and bonuses to give team members incentives to work on the project “until appropriate milestones are reached”. This, Browne said, had been key to the success of major projects delivered by the private sector.

Departments still sceptical of Maude’s reforms?

Meanwhile the FT has reported that Maude’s attempts to inject commercial acumen into Whitehall by putting leading business figures on departmental boards is failing to live up to its billing, with some departments rarely consulting their external non-executive directors.

The FT says that the Treasury department’s supervisory board met only once in the year to April 2012, according to a report by Insight Public Affairs, a consultancy. The energy department’s board met twice, compared to 15 meetings in the transport department, reflecting the inconsistent involvement of non-executive directors.

John Lehal, managing director of Insight Public Affairs, said the ad hoc manner in which departments held board meetings reflected the need for greater accountability – as underlined by the Treasury’s failure to engage its non-executives.

Comment

At long last the Major Projects Authority, under the straight-talking Australian David  Pitchford, will publish its annual report; and it may contain more detail on major projects than has been published by any government.

As departments fear public embarrassment more than any other sanction, publication of the traffic light status of projects – with the underlying detail – should genuinely discourage the starting of ill-considered projects.

Although the MPA annual report is much delayed Maude has succeeded in getting agreement for it to be published. Provided it contains enough detail to allow the status of projects to be judged by armchair auditors, it should begin to make a real difference.

Telegraph article

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