How Good Governance is Improving the UK’s Major Projects

I was asked to take on ‘doing governance’ for a large programme of work once. When I got started two things happened: I realised that the project team were doing a fantastic job without me and the perception of the professionalism of the project went up.

I don’t say that to blow my own trumpet. I did virtually nothing to supplement what the team were already doing – convened a few meetings, documented some decisions, did some newsletters. The team knew these small tasks needed doing so it wasn’t as if I brought lots of knowledge and skills that they didn’t have. But somehow even those few actions made a noticeable, positive, difference.

The 2015 Major Projects Review is out and governance features highly. That structured approach that forces accountability is what the Major Projects Authority (MPA) is tasked with doing for the UK government’s portfolio of major projects.

The MPA’s governance tools

The MPA was created under a Prime Ministerial mandate in 2011 to improve the delivery of major public sector projects. It does this through a raft of measures, most of which I would put under the heading of governance.

  • It carries out independent assurance reviews of projects, then supports the project leaders in implementing the findings (governance)
  • It provides access to experienced and credible personnel to challenge existing thinking (governance)
  • It acts as a source of support and advice to project teams (not governance)
  • It develops skills through a number of training programmes (not governance)
  • It maintains the portfolio of major projects and collects data about these projects, then publishes it (governance)

The Delivery Confidence Assessment

The last one of those tools is the most interesting for me, because I love having a nosy into what other projects are doing.

The MPA publishes a delivery confidence assessment (DCA) for each project. This provides a status summary (red to green).

Amber/Red and Red projects require urgent action: the MPA team can then focus on supporting the projects that are facing the most challenges and help them build practical plans.

Is governance making a difference?

Yes. I think it is.

The MPA hasn’t been around that long. In 2012 there were 31 projects categorised as Amber/Red or Red. This year 14 of those are at the other end of the scale. None of them are rated as Red.

The Rail Franchise Programme: An improving project

UK commuters shudder when they think about the railways. They are known for being slow, old, late, too hot in summer, freezing in winter and that’s when they turn up at all. The Rail Franchise Programme secures the provision of passenger services. No programme, no trains.

The MPA’s 2015 analysis reports that this project has improved significantly since 2012, even though it is still rated as Amber. The report says:

In response to the Laidlaw, Brown and McPherson Reviews, the Department has developed strong systems and processes (for example clear reporting lines, improved governance regimes, and multifaceted assurance mechanisms) which are now actively incorporated in the daily management of the programme. The programme has gained the support and collaboration of the rail industry because of its transparency and recognition of industry and market needs and opportunities.

Audits, reviews, reports and then acting on the outcomes have all made a governance-driven difference to this project.

Future Reserves 2020: Going the other way

Projects do go the other way and project governance can only truly be respected if people see that poorly performing projects are called out.

Senior stakeholders need to see that projects that are not performing are recognised as such. In the same time period, the Future Reserves 2020 project went from Amber/Red to Red. It’s a project to meet the commitments of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, one of which is to increase the UK’s Reservists. The project hasn’t hit its targets and it’s been recategorised accordingly.

The narrative behind the numbers

Statistics are only valuable if you understand how they are created. There is an odd thing happening with the portfolio. Many individual projects have tightened up their governance and improved their RAG rating. But overall, the ‘delivery confidence’ of the portfolio has stayed the same. How is that possible?

The MPA explain it like this. The projects that have been around a while have a higher delivery confidence as they are nearing closure. New projects joining the portfolio have a shaky delivery confidence, so they balance out the more mature projects.

That’s why it’s important to understand the story behind the statistics and not take the numbers at their face value.

Other governance

There are other governance factors in play as well including:

  • An increased clarity around the role of a project leader on a major project
  • Clearer accountability for project leaders
  • Assurance reviews carried out by independent senior civil servants and experts (they’ve managed to fit in over 200 in the last year, all at key decision points in the project).

Finally, project teams can’t just spend their budget on anything they like. Certain categories of spending, like consultancy, requires further approval from the Cabinet Office.

Here in the UK we did have a pretty shoddy reputation for managing projects and getting them in on time. However, in my career as a project manager I’ve seen that change. I still think the 2012 Olympics were the turning point for us, and I hope that these governance improvements continue to work and to support the delivery of major projects across the country.