Public Sector Projects - could they do better?

The question is, given the nature of the public sector, could we expect them to do any better in future? Well, yes—but it will always be a struggle.

In any project, there are a few key principles that if neglected will surely bring project failure.

The first is to bear in mind the triangle of time, cost and performance—the project must be delivered to meet objectives in each of these areas.

These need to be fixed at the start of the project, and if they change, then the consequences must be understood and managed.

These objectives are all difficult to fix in the first place.

Time is hard, as to a large extent people in the public sector are not very driven by time (with the obvious exception of medical or other emergencies) - there is no pressure to get this product out of the door by Christmas, or before their competitor does, as there would be in the private sector.

Hence, there is no culture of being able to assess how long things will take, and estimates (public sector people being human after all) err on the optimistic side.

Performance — i.e. what the project is going to deliver, be that a new policy, process or IT system—is very often the key criteria to be met: we have seen the downsides of hastily introduced policies (dangerous dogs, anyone?) and public sector projects have a very wide array of stakeholders who need input to the project—some of these actually do have expertise that must be taken into account, but some just need to be allowed to have their say.

The other impediment to getting the performance—i.e. the product—right is the size of projects allied to the frequent changes in government policy and organisation.

It's axiomatic that “events, dear boy, events” will change government policy, but having large projects that spread across years only increase the chances of the project being affected by a change in Minister, government or a departmental reorganisation.

In the ten years from 1995 to 2004 there were on average 16 reorganisations per year in central government departments, including (counted as only one each), Scottish and Welsh devolution.

Given that the estimates of time and performance are not very good, then is it surprising that cost estimates are often wildly inaccurate?

A further problem that government IT projects struggle with is the concept of ownership: any project must have a business owner or sponsor (not a project manager, but a person (or a board) to whom the project manager reports).

Big projects now have a “Senior Responsible Owner”, which has helped a bit, but it's not helped when they change frequently, and the guidance from the Office of Government Commerce allows a certain laxity in interpretation as to the actual business responsibility.

Lastly, managing stakeholders is frequently done badly. As any project manager will tell you, stakeholders are “anyone with an interest in the project”.

And as far as public sector projects go, we all have an interest. The eventual users of the system - citizens like you and me, and the public sector staff who have to use the internal systems - are often the last to be consulted when a new system is rolled out.

The public sector is sometimes better than their private sector counterparts at doing this - but the NHS IT programme is a prime example of not getting this right.

So what can be done to improve performance? Well, good project management isn't rocket science and really embedding it into the public sector would help greatly (the National Audit Office is still reporting that a basic task like getting a business case approved is not being done).

Getting proper business ownership and being able to manage scope creep (and say ‘no’ if necessary) is vital, as is getting a good handle of what's happening in the business now, and what needs to change in terms of the business process before moving on to the IT systems.

Smaller projects might help too—instead of handing over a whole department to an IT supplier or consortium for ‘transformation’, departments or local authorities might like to think through what it is their citizens really want and what they need to do to improve their operational capability.

So yes, public sector IT projects could do better; but it is the very nature of the business that government organisation and priorities will change.

I can't easily see any end to the stream of negative NAO reports—but really adhering to some of the basic principles of project management such as getting the business case right, clear ownership and better stakeholder management would be a big step forward.

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