A report* from the House of Common public accounts committee (PAC) says that not enough has been done to address “the government’s perennial inability to manage and deliver projects on time and budget”.

The report, Lessons from major projects and programmes, reiterates the concerns that crop up “time and time again” in government delivery of major projects like High Speed Two – such as “programmes not keeping to cost or schedule, a lack of transparency in their progress, and weaknesses in leadership and governance”.

With the government pushing to accelerate capital works in its Project Speed initiative, the public accounts committee is concerned about “the value for money risks resulting from the significant increase in investment, speed of delivery and changes to how government makes investment decisions” and that “the calibre and number of people in leadership positions in major projects is still not strong enough”.

The report says: “We are concerned about the value for money risks resulting from the significant increase in investment, speed of delivery and changes to how government makes investment decisions. The March 2020 budget set out an ambitious plan for £600bn of gross public investment over the next five years. Government’s commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will add to further challenges in meeting these commitments. This committee questioned the capacity of both government and the private sector to deliver large increases in activity efficiently and effectively.

“The IPA [Infrastructure & Projects Authority] tells us it assessed the condition of the supply chain and considers it will be able to meet the levels of planned activity, provided that there are stable long-term plans. The IPA is likewise optimistic about government’s Project Speed initiatives to accelerate and simplify areas of major project delivery, such as through reforms to planning and the use of modern construction techniques.

“Government has also made changes to its Green Book guidance on evaluating investment proposals, such as removing the dominance of benefit-cost ratios in project appraisal and introducing a new public value framework. If not managed carefully, the benefits of proper scrutiny and development of programmes could become lost in a rush to deliver, and spending decisions could be made without sufficient demonstration of their value.”

The public accounts committee also questions the competence of both public servants and ministers in charge. “The calibre and number of people in leadership positions in major projects is still not strong enough,” the report says. “Skills and leadership remain a persistent problem in delivering major projects, particularly in getting the appropriate mix of skills across areas such as civil engineering and digital systems.”

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It continues: “While the tenure of senior responsible owners (SROs) has improved slightly in recent years, SROs still typically manage four or five different projects and so do not get the time to manage them effectively. Matching up an SRO’s skills with the stage a programme is at is also important. The IPA set up the Major Projects Leadership Academy to train SROs and has begun to offer this training to ministers with responsibility for major programmes. It is looking to build on this work with a Major Projects Academy which is intended to support training and accreditation for the wider project delivery profession across government. This committee previously recommended that permanent secretaries and other civil servants attend the Major Projects Leadership Academy, but it is clear that more work remains to improve the calibre of leadership for major projects.”

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Committee, said: “The government’s perennial inability to manage and deliver projects on time and budget must be addressed if the country is to safely navigate through to the end of the pandemic and beyond. The challenges of the pandemic have shown what can be achieved by government in short order – and how badly it can fail.

“We have made too many reports, covering billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers money wasted by cost and timetable overruns, or on projects ‘parked’ or abandoned after sinking massive resources for years. We want to see lasting improvements made to the way in which government delivers major projects – it will not be acceptable to keep seeing past problems repeated.”

Debbie Dore, chief executive of Association for Project Management, said: “We welcome the committee’s recognition of the importance of skills capability and capacity in helping to strengthen project leadership and ministerial understanding of project delivery across government.  Systematic training for all will support more effective delivery of the government’s existing and future portfolio of major projects, and specifically the National Infrastructure Strategy.

“We look forward to working in partnership with the Infrastructure & Projects Authority to enable this boost to capability. The forthcoming launch of the Government Project Academy can play a vital role in turbo-charging this effort to improve delivery skills.”

* Lessons from major projects and programmes, House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, 29th January 2021 (HC 694)

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