Whitehall to lose its best troubleshooter

By Tony Collins

David Pitchford, who is arguably the civil service’s most able troubleshooter, is to quit the civil service in September and return to his native Australia for undisclosed family reasons. The FT broke the story yesterday.

Pitchford is Executive Director at the understaffed Major Projects Authority. It aims to work in partnership with permanent secretaries and senior civil servants to improve the success rate of major departmental IT and other large projects. 

In practice some senior civil servants in central departments resent the intrusion of the Cabinet Office. They do not like having to present their big schemes to the Major Projects Authority, particularly as it has David Cameron’s mandate to stop or re-scope failing projects.

Fighting intransigence? 

One unanswered question about Pitchford’s quitting is: has his morale been beaten down by departmental intransigence and even ill-will? Has the system defeated Pitchford and the taxpayer – the same system that confronted other Cabinet Office reformers John Suffolk, Chris Chant and Andy Tait?

It is possible that Pitchford feels his work is done now that the Major Projects Authority has finally, and after some departmental resistance, produced its first annual report.

The report’s key feature is its “traffic light” status on the projects it is keeping an eye on. In a foreword to the report, Pitchford wrote:

“April 2013 marks two years of the Major Projects Authority… For the first time, the country’s biggest and most high-risk projects are scrutinised so problems are exposed before they spiral out of control. Over two-thirds of major projects are predicted to deliver their promises on time and on budget, more than double the historic success rate. However, the MPA has studied carefully what goes on in every department, and we have uncovered some weaknesses which we are continuing to address.

“The MPA was established following a landmark report by the National Audit Office in 2010, which recommended a wholesale shift in the administration of major projects. It works closely with individual departments’ project teams and Permanent Secretaries to monitor and improve the management of major projects…the MPA’s Government Major Projects Portfolio has improved the rate of successful project delivery from under 30% to over 70%.

“Our success has been achieved by focusing intensively on the three core elements of successful project management: improving leadership; improving the operating environment; and looking closely at the past lessons.”

Pitchford is a much-valued executive in part because he can see why projects are failing and is straight-talking. He joined the Cabinet Office in November 2009 and in 2010 told a conference what he had discovered so far about the reasons for the failure of UK government projects:

– Political pressure

– No business case

– No agreed budget

– 80% of projects launched before 1,2 & 3 have been resolved

– Sole solution approach (options not considered)

– Lack of Commercial capability – (contract / administration)

– No plan

– No timescale

– No defined benefits

Since then Pitchford has been a little more guarded now about what he says in public. Campaign4Change said in February 2013 that the longer he stays in the innately secretive civil service the more guarded he seems to become but he is still one the best assets the Cabinet Office has. His main advantage is his independence from government departments.

Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, said he would “much miss David’s sharp wit and impressive leadership”.

Is Pitchford’s departure a sign that the non-reformers in Whitehall departments are winning the battle against major change?

 

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