Peeling back the covers on government programmes, Richard Bacon MP


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Richard Bacon MP for South Norfolk and successful author of ‘Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it’ was the guest speaker at highly entertaining and informative ProgM event held in Central London.

Securing Richard’s attendance was a coup for ProgM. Merv Wyeth (ProgM Chair) confessed that the evening represented the culmination of months of stalking and some mild harassment to ensure the committee ‘got their man’.

Steve Wake, Chair of APM Board, introduced the evening with a personal story about the seminal Committee of Public Accounts, Eighth Report “The Proper Conduct of Public Business,” that had started him out on the road of earned value. This set the context for Richard to explain what, if anything, had changed in twenty years!

Richard did not ‘pull his punches’ and his early assessment of the consequences of failed major projects was uncompromising:

“Don’t be surprised, he told the assembled, if what you end up with:

• is a mess that is way behind schedule,
• damages your organization,
• traumatizes your staff,
• costs much more than it is supposed to,
• and doesn’t work!

As a member of the highly influential House of Commons Public Accounts Committee Richard has been exposed to the full range of major project horror stories.

While Richard’s focus was on the really big projects that cost the most and carry the greatest risk, his advice is equally applicable to those smaller scale projects, that many of us have personal experience of, and, irritatingly, somehow have an uncanny habit of achieving a sub optimal outcome.

Richard’s assessment of the causes of failure reveals the same olde problems with which we are all familiar:

• very high staff turnover
• lack of information
• lack of knowledge about costs and sloppy financial management
• lack of key skills
• poor project management
• lack of procurement capability
• risk aversion and risk ignorance.

So why do we get it wrong, seemingly again and again?

Richard’s answer lies in human nature - “it’s behavior stupid’’ … Get this right and then we are on the way to successful delivery. Yet, and here is the ‘conundrum’, while senior managers handle and live comfortably with ambiguity successful project managers are programmed to nail down scope at the earliest possible stage.

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Peeling back the covers on government programmes, Richard Bacon MP

  1. 1. Richard Bacon MP Peeling back the covers on government programmes Richard Bacon MP
  2. 2. Public Accounts Committee (PAC) • Oldest House of Commons committee, founded in 1861 • 14 (13) Members of Parliament • 7 Conservatives, 1 Lib Dem, 5 Labour • The Chairman is always a member of the principal Opposition Party • Non-partisan
  3. 3. Public Accounts Committee (PAC) • The PAC is a guardian of taxpayers’ money • Budget & Tax: handled by another committee • PAC is not a policy committee or a budget committee i.e. we do not ask: Which is the priority? more roads or more railways? • Instead we examine the question: Did government spend taxpayers’ money wisely? • That is, effectively, efficiently and economically • i.e. was it Value For Money?
  4. 4. National Audit Office - NAO • Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse, plus 800 professional staff • Financial audit for public organisations • Performance audit: Value for Money – 60 VfM studies per year. National Audit Office reports to Parliament through the Public Accounts Committee • Public Accounts Committee takes evidence on NAO report and then produces its own recommendations • Government responds to PAC recommendations
  6. 6. Department of Health • Inappropriate Adjustments to NHS Waiting Lists • Tamiflu • National Programme for IT in the NHS (N.P.f.I.T.) • PFI hospitals • Clinical Negligence and Litigation • Hospital Acquired Infections
  7. 7. Department of Work & Pensions • The Work Programme • Tackling Benefit Fraud • Universal Credit • Personal Independence Payments • Tax Credits • Child Support Agency
  8. 8. HM Revenue and Customs •Income Tax Self Assessment •The Misuse and Smuggling of Hydrocarbon oils •Tackling fraud against the Inland Revenue •Inland Revenue: Tax credits and deleted tax cases •Tax Avoidance
  9. 9. Ministry of Defence • Apache Helicopters • Chinook Helicopters • Operation TELIC - United Kingdom military operations in Iraq • Carrier Strike • Army 2020
  10. 10. Other Examples •Academies EDUCATION •GCHQ SIGNALS INTELLIGENCE •Agricultural Fraud AGRICULTURE •New Homes Bonus PROPERTY •Passport Office HOME •Criminal Records Bureau HOME •Duchy of Cornwall ROYAL •SMART METERING ENERGY •HIGH SPEED 2 TRANSPORT
  11. 11. Project Management - Central / Departmental • TSU – Technical Support Unit – 1950s • CCTA – Central Computer & Telecommunications Agency • CUP – Central Unit on Procurement • OGC – Office of Government Commerce • MPA – Major Projects Authority • MPLA – Major Projects Leadership Academy • GDS – Government Digital Service • A key issue is VISIBILITY
  12. 12. Source: Progress in Improving Government Efficiency, HC 802-I, Session 2005-2006, 17 February 2006, p50.
  13. 13. Human Competitive Financial E-Gov Budget/Perf. Human Competitive Financial E-Gov Budget/Perf. Capital Sourcing Perf. Integration Capital Sourcing Perf. Integration AGRICULTURE COMMERCE DEFENSE EDUCATION ENERGY EPA HHS DHS HUD INTERIOR JUSTICE LABOR STATE DOT TREASURY VA AID CORPS GSA NASA NSF OMB OPM SBA SMITHSONIAN SSA Executive Branch Management Scorecard Current Status as of March 31, 2006 Progress in Implementing the President's Management Agenda Arrows indicate change in status since evaluation on December 31, 2005 Source: US Office of Management & Budget,
  14. 14. Major Projects Authority Report
  15. 15. Government Major Projects Portfolio - GMPP
  16. 16. The study of why things go wrong • Why is there so much failure? • Parliamentarians • Auditors • Journalists • Universities • Think Tanks • Trade Associations • Academics in Business schools and elsewhere • Government bodies • Many have asked – and answered – this question!
  17. 17. The study of why things go wrong • If you don’t know what you want, • or what you want keeps changing; • or you can’t commit the required money to the project; • or you don’t have anyone in charge of the project, • or you keep changing the person in charge, • or the person who • is supposed to be in charge doesn’t really call the shots; • or the person at the top of the business doesn’t care about the project; • and you don’t focus on what the actual benefit to the business is; • and you don’t regularly talk to the people who will have to use the system; • and you don’t constantly check progress; • or you have an unrealistic timetable and try to run before you can walk; • or you fail to test the system properly before you launch it; • or if you don’t provide enough training; • or you don’t have a Plan B in case things go wrong; • or you try to bite off more than you can chew in one go; • or if you don’t realise that the bigger project the greater the chance of its being overtaken by events or new technology or new legislation; • or you don’t realise that you may not have the skills you need to manage the project; • or you don’t realise that some suppliers are quite capable of telling you they can deliver when they can’t; • Then…..
  18. 18. The frequent result Don’t be surprised if you end up with: •a mess that is way behind schedule, •damages your organisation, •traumatises your staff, •costs much more than it is supposed to, •and doesn’t work.”
  19. 19. The same old problems • Very high staff turnover • Lack of Information • Lack of Knowledge about Costs • Lack of Financial Management • Lack of Key Skills • Lack of Project Management • Lack of Procurement Capability • Risk Aversion and Risk Ignorance
  20. 20. Not for lack of Civil Service “reform” • Fulton Report • Efficiency Unit – Derek Rayner from M&S • Financial Management Initiative • Management in Government – “Next Steps” • Continuity and Change • Citizen’s Charter • Taking Forward Continuity and Change • Modernising Government • Civil Service Reform: Delivery and Values • Civil Service Reform: Delivery and Values – One Year on • Capability Reviews • Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government • The Civil Service Reform Plan • The Civil Service Reform Plan – One Year on
  21. 21. Why? • As Bill Clinton nearly said: • “It’s behaviour, stupid” • Where does our behaviour come from?
  22. 22. And where does our behaviour come from? • Schmoozing • Scheming • consensus building • mediating conflicts • developing trust • abusing trust • mutual fear • total domination • reconciliation under the pressure of circumstances • the development of rivalries • the repairing of ruling coalitions • Which of these behaviours do you recognise? • They are all well-observed behaviours of chimpanzees.
  23. 23. We are social primates • Frans de Waal: “The roots of politics are older than humanity” • Primitive tribes – competition for food and shelter. • TWO OPTIONS: • Kill each other • OR • Collaborate to deal with other threats e.g. sabre-toothed tiger • Aggression and reconciliation are pre-wired into us • Translate this into an office environment, factory, parish meeting, government department • Territory, security, insecurity, status, hierarchy. • You get what we call “Human Behaviour” – the roots are very deep-seated. • “How do people actually behave?” Frans de Waal
  24. 24. Carl von Clausewitz • “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means” • then it follows that • “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” • Politics is reconciliation behaviour
  25. 25. Charles II and Nixon • “Gaps and ‘abeyances’ ” – Michael Foley: “The Silence of Constitutions” • “tacit agreements to maintain deep and unsettled issues in a state of genuine ambiguity” • “Don’t even go there” – frustrating or sensitive or absurd. • BUT can’t easily be changed without unacceptable damage to the system we are operating in. • Ambiguity has its uses. • Ralph Waldo Emerson: • “A foolish law is a rope of sand”
  26. 26. Project management versus politics • “Project managers must forever be closing down options early, while political managers try to keep all options open for ever” Ross Anderson • “Everything really interesting that happens on [ software ] projects eventually comes down to people.” James Bach
  27. 27. Ambiguity versus Clarity Ian Watmore: “It is very rare that the technology is the problem in these so-called IT problems. It is nearly always the case that either the project management has been done incorrectly or the policy ambition was too ambitious. The reason why IT is the place where it gets found out is because that is the place where all the codification of what has been decided finally comes to fruition…. …..and machines are pretty bad at handling ambiguity.”
  28. 28. Truth and the Olympics “The one outstanding feature of the whole organisation, from the ODA through to the delivery partner CLM and the contractors, was that we worked hard to generate and recognise one source of truth” David Birch Head of Programme Controls at Olympic delivery partner CLM Association of Project Management – The Learning Legacy
  29. 29. B.V.S.M. Matrix SALES VISIBILITY Low visibility, low sales High visibility, low sales High visibility, high sales Low visibility, high sales
  30. 30. Conundrum