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Digital methods will improve government projects, says civil service chief

Civil service CEO John Manzoni tells MPs that lessons learned from digital technologies will help improve the track record of all major projects in government

New ways of working brought about by digital technologies could help to improve the government’s record on delivering major projects, according to civil service chief executive John Manzoni.

Speaking to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in an inquiry into managing major projects, Manzoni said that mistakes had been made in the early days of digital transformation but that the lessons learned could have wider benefits.

He was asked by the MPs about three troubled projects – rural payments, e-Borders and Universal Credit – and whether the problems each experienced showed that new project oversight methods were needed.

“What’s interesting is if you think about those three projects, which have fallen into some difficulty, they happened right at the moment that we were learning – and everybody was learning, not just government – about how digital technologies could be applied to big business processes,” said Manzoni.

“In almost every one of those cases, we – the system – was overambitious in its expectations about what those new technologies could bring and how quickly you could bring them. And it happened right at the moment that new processes and new ways of doing projects were introduced into the system.”

He said that early experiences of using agile delivery methods instead of old, established processes involving a series of “gated” stages, proved problematic, but had led to important lessons being learned.

“That gated process that was hitherto best practice in major projects across the private and public sector – we said [instead] we were agile now, not waterfall. And we overcompensated and misunderstood that process. Now we know no project is either waterfall or agile; it’s a good mixture of both. Those three [projects] were right at the moment everybody was learning that, and it in part explains. We’re beginning to learn about minimum viable products, and doing things in a more agile way: create a minimum viable product, do it simply, we don’t [have to] know the end state. There is a change happening and it’s to do with that technological change that’s going on.”

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Tony Meggs, chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), created last November by merging the Major Projects Authority and Infrastructure UK, said that digital methods will also help focus government projects on the outcomes for citizens and measuring the intended benefits, not just on budgets and timescales.

“The digital business of government is massively focused on understanding and enhancing interaction with the public. Along with that are iterative or agile processes that allow you to get feedback as you go. Universal Credit is now in a place where they are very nimbly adapting as they get continuous feedback from public. It’s not perfect and we have a way to go and we make mistakes, but I do think there is a much higher level of awareness,” he said.

The PAC meeting followed on from a National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this month which found that out of 149 major government projects with total lifetime costs of £511bn, including 40 IT projects, a third are rated as red or amber-red, meaning they have significant problems.

Improving project delivery

Meggs highlighted four areas where the IPA is working to improve project delivery:

  • better planning in the early stages
  • training and recruiting better project leaders
  • encouraging Whitehall departments to prioritise projects based on the resources available
  • improving performance measurement, particularly through use of better data

“We are doing an enormous amount of work to improve quality of data. We are making enormous progress, but the quality of data is variable,” he said.

SRO churn

Meggs also claimed that good progress is being made in an area that has been a recurring problem for government projects – ensuring that senior responsible owners (SROs) stay on the project for longer. In each of the examples of e-Borders, rural payments and Universal Credit, frequent SRO changes were identified as contributory factors to the problems.

“We are seeing signs of a decrease in the SRO turnover,” said Meggs. “The latest figures show 7% [turnover of SROs] in a quarter; that equates to three to four years average time in post and that is not too bad.”

He claimed that turnover was twice as high a year ago, but acknowledged that project directors, which is the management level below SRO, is still an area having difficulties, with twice the turnover of SROs.  

Positive steps

In the NAO report, the audit body’s chief Amyas Morse acknowledged that “a number of positive steps” have been taken by the project authority and the departments.

“At the same time, I am concerned that a third of projects monitored by the authority are red or amber-red and the overall picture of progress on project performance is opaque. More effort is needed if the success rate of project delivery is to improve,” he said.

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