Establishing the Major Projects Authority: identifying the priorities

“Previously Government projects have had a poor delivery record. There was no cross-governmental understanding of the size and cost of the Government’s Major Project portfolio, and projects often began with no agreed budget, no business case and unrealistic delivery timetables. This Government will not allow that costly failure to continue. The MPA will work in collaboration with central Government Departments to help us get firmer control of our major projects both at an individual and portfolio level.”

Rt. Hon Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, March 2011

The cost, ambition, complexity and risk of the Government’s major projects have increased hugely over the past decade. For too long only a minority were completed on time, on budget and to the desired quality. Central Government assurance and National Audit Office (NAO) findings have both highlighted the delays, overspend and under-delivery that plagues major projects.

In an era of intense pressure on public expenditure, the need for vastly improved results from the billions of pounds spent on public projects has never been greater.

Understanding the major projects portfolio

At the end of the last General Election there was no central oversight of the Government’s major projects, and therefore no understanding of their number, size or complexity. Core performance data was not collected on a systematic basis to enable risks and issues to be managed effectively by departments. The lack of information limited the effectiveness of external independent assurance processes; and those processes themselves were inadequate.

A new system of assurance

The former Office of Government Commerce’s (OGC’s) Gateway™ Review process which the MPA took over, lacked the weight to drive real improvements in project performance. In its 2010 report ‘Assurance for high risk projects’, the NAO called for “A new mandatory system of assurance … to reduce the financial risk to the taxpayer and increase the likelihood of successful project delivery.”

Project capability

Project leadership has been identified as a key factor in major projects failing to deliver high quality outcomes on time and to budget. A lack of appreciation and experience of critical project and programme management techniques has inhibited progress. It is the role of the MPA to ensure that technical expertise is considered and tested within assurance reviews and the risks are both understood and managed. MPA is working to ensure that we have reviewers who have experience and understanding of the new Agile approach.

Dissemination and application of learning

We need to learn from successful projects as well as failures. At individual project level the issues hampering successful delivery are usually well documented, but measures taken to address them often do not have enough impact to put the project back on track quickly. Where lessons from past projects have been captured, they are not recorded in an easily accessible place nor turned into practical tools which can be applied to new projects.

Operating environment

Projects do not exist in a vacuum; they are created to implement Government policy objectives or bring about major operational change. However policy and delivery have often been disconnected, even though they are frequently co-dependent in practice. There has been a failure to ensure critical planning, resources, governance arrangements and political backing were all in place at the outset. As a consequence, in the past major projects were too often started with deadlines shaped by public announcements and before wider challenges had been properly thought through. Scope was frequently amended mid-project due to changes in policy, personnel or political will. Inadequate processes for challenge and change management resulted in increased cost and schedule overrun. This all needs to change.

A new approach

Actions and measures previously put in place to improve the situation have proved insufficient on their own and that’s why more radical change was needed. The Government needs better information, improved project leadership, a knowledge base for applying good practice and a better operating environment.