The NAO have reported that “A third of major government projects due to deliver in the next five years are rated as in doubt or unachievable unless action is taken to improve delivery” NAO Controller and Auditor Amyas Morse believes that the central issue lies in the digital skills gap that exists across many of these public sector projects.
Morse feels that as “70% and 80% of their projects are transformation projects with a large digital element”, an additional 2,800 staff with the specific specialist knowledge and skills to handle the challenges of these digital change projects will be needed for both their development and ongoing management.To employ this many civil servants could apparently cost as much as £213m, and this is only half of the expected cost if these skills are brought in on a contractor basis.
The NAO website states that “While in the last Parliament, the NAO reported on improvements in the way aspects of programmes in some departments were managed, we also reported regularly on project failures and on going projects that were experiencing considerable difficulties. Key recurring issues included an absence of portfolio management at both departmental and government level; lack of clear, consistent data with which to measure performance; poor early planning; lack of capacity and capability to undertake a growing number of projects; and a lack of clear accountability for leadership of a project.”
With 149 projects in the Government Major Project Portfolio estimated at a combined whole-life cost of £511bn, £25bn of which is expected to be spent in 2015/2016, this is an issue of significant proportions.
The NAO also stated that “Despite some improvements in the level of information published on major projects, there are still a number of issues which make it difficult to form conclusions about trends in performance. These include the amount of project turnover in the Portfolio; the limited data published by departments; inconsistent reporting of costs; and no systematic monitoring of whether the intended benefits have been achieved.”
So, while not all negative, the NAO is certainly implying cause for concern when it comes to management, transparency and required skills. Furthermore, it also seems that the number of projects classified as “amber-red” or “red” – those at risk of being delivered late, outside of budget or unable to achieve their stated outcomes (37 out of 106 due for delivery in the next five years) – has increased since 2012.
The Root of the Problem
Key to the issues the NAO has cited is a potential disconnect between the government’s drive to build new technology-based systems to improve efficiencies, and the skill sets required to do this adequately.
Technology moves forward at pace, but large public sector projects take their time, and with many taking years to complete it is no surprise that some fall out of step with expectations as the systems being built are surpassed by simpler, swift and less costly alternatives. Some will adapt and survive, others will not, and the weight of public opinion regarding wasted public funds can hinder, cripple or even knock such projects off the rails. It is therefore vitally important that there is a way for government projects to be regularly assess and realigned to fit the realities of the environment in which they are being created and operated.
A Project Level Solution
According to The Telegraph, the NAO found that “only four of the 73 projects which have been underway for four years have been overseen by the same senior manager during that time” and on top of the aforementioned skills gap this inconsistency is bound to have productivity and knowledge leak implications.
When senior management or those with specialist technical skills leave a project, unless there is a rock-solid documentation and handover process being adequately enforced, there is a risk that the project will lose the associated intelligence and capacity. New talent takes time to embed itself in a project and new leadership may take a different tack causing delays, both of which affect productivity and stability.
An Intelligent Client Function (ICF) team adds the consistency that any major outsourcing project requires. Involved from project inception to implementation and beyond, this carefully selected team – brought together from both technical and operational disciplines – becomes a valuable vendor relationship management tool and project-wide knowledge base. Its insights can help to avert risks and recognise opportunities thanks to the special inter-organisational relationships its member develop.
The technical expertise referred to by the NAO could best serve the project within such a team, and, if given the right resources and authority, it may be possible to ensure that those people that the project most relies upon can be persuaded to stick around for longer. The fear, of course, is that no matter what you spend on acquiring the necessary talent for your project, your work is not finished after contracts are signed, because employee retention is something that must be worked on every day
Whilst the government does have some fantastic teams and shared divisions in their midst, the added value of these skills can all too easily be lost if they fail to translate lessons across departments and projects or to define a standard by which all these projects should be developed, planned and run.
The NAO stated on their website that “An effective mechanism still needs to be developed for prioritising projects across government or judging whether individual departments have the capacity to deliver them.”
It has been suggested before that if a centralised hub of knowledge were to be developed for this purpose, one which could contributed to and accessed by all departments and bodies, it may become easier to recognise successful processes and partnerships, and to provide a more detailed, quantified view of how projects should be perform or are performing and why.
Of course, the development of such a knowledge base would be a mammoth undertaking. It is therefore unsurprising that such a repository has not yet been constructed given the myriad of other challenges faced by the government at present.
Aware of the latest technological innovations and the potential benefits these may confer to government services, the government has initiated a number of highly ambitious projects to help put “digital” at the heart of their operations and services. At the same time they recognise the potential benefits of integrating all of their systems and data to provide a more rounded view of individuals and internal business units to help inform their decision-making, all of which warrants merit.
However, with billions of pounds being spent on projects, many of which are at risk of being delivered late, potentially leading to huge cost overruns, and others at risk of being terminated altogether, questions need to be asked about the government’s preparedness for the undertaking they have embarked upon.
The £213m estimated by the NAO as the cost of boosting the existing workforce with those with the right technical know-how may seem expensive, but with this talent in the right positions – potentially a well-resourced ICF team – this initial investment may well pay for itself many times over in the long run.