Project magazine Richard Bacon interview December 2013
IS THE CRITICISM OF
#f fr ilr
pin or no spin, it's
commonly accepted -
governments will make
mistakes. But can we do
anything about it?
It's a permanent Parliament paradox
but the seemingly unanswerable
question is one that South Norfolk
MP Richard Bacon tackles in hrs
The boo( a^alyses failu'e in'rany
h gh-prof e UK publlc sector projects,
includrng the National Programme for
lT in the NHS, the Child Support
Agency, Passport Agency and Student
Along with co-author Christopher
Hope, senior political correspondent at
The Daily Telegraph, Richard says one
key reason for repeated prolect fatlures
rs recruit ng civil servants on the basis
of their cognitive abilities in terms of
playing with ideas, rather than their
ability to deliver.
He quotes former head of the Nationa
Aud t Off ice, Sir John Bourn:"The top
jobs should go to those who have
successfu ly managed programmes and
t4 proiect DE0EMBER2or3
:,ri,s-. ',.. ,: li;r#i, j..+
prolects in health, social, welfare and
taxation as well as construction and
defence. At the moment, they're given
io those helping ministers get through
the political week."
Richard believes, to a large extent,
Bourn's words still ring true,
"Ministers have a limited pool of
pre-determined talent to choose from
in hirng the permanent secretaries who
run civil service departments. These are
very seldom professionals with prolect
ma nagement experience.
"More people are needed in
Government with a deep understanding
of project management and a
successful track record. "
The Conservative MP, who sits on the
Public Accounts Committee, was inspired
to write the book after seeing too much
go wrong for too long. He outlines his
passion for project management.
"With lust about everyrl'ing you
see, feel, touch and experience in the
world, somebody, somewhere has
prolect managed it. It is ceniral and
ubiquitous and yet in both Parliament
and Government we don't know how
vital it is.
"That to me is a problem for the
profession that it needs to do
something about." D
NEEDED Iru GOVERNMENT WITH
A DEEP UNDERSTANDING OF
AND A SUCCESSFUL TRACK
DECEMBER 2013 projegt
PERCEPTI()il IN PARLIAMTNT
"lthink its making progress," Richard
says when qurzzed over Parliament's v ew
on project management. "l don't think
ts there yet in terms of its status, by
any means, but the advent of the Major
Projects Authority, the way rt has been
rece ved and the calibre of the people
nvolved, is positive.
"The profile of prolect management
rs rising but do we have a series of
perrnanent secretarles across
Whitehall wrth serious backgrounds
in project management? We don't
yet but we should."
He says new mrnisters eading
departments often lack any understanding
of the tension between managing large
organisat ons and the political process.
"They may understand electoral timetables
but they often don't fully understand
the negatrve impact these may have on
managing projects successf u1 ly. "
The book's case-study chapters detail
examples of very srgnif icant project failures
- including the recent lnterC ty West Coast
Ma n Llne franchise.
"The 12 case-study chapters deliberately
straddle different governments.
"l wanted to make the point that this
is not a party political book and that farlure
happens under governments of
all parties. "
Richard welcomes the MPAs Malor
Project Leadership Academy, which is
building the skills of senior project leaders
across Government. He believes rt will
improve percept ons of the profession
across Whitehali, leading to better
performance. He urges cautron though:
"l don't think itl a silver buLlet that will
solve a I prob ems, and there may be a
danger of creat ng a crop of attractive,
valuable peopie whom the private sector
tnes to poach. That aspect needs careful
IMPLEMEI,ITAII0N AND IDE0L0GY
Richard quotes Labour MP Stella Creasy
saying: "Governments should notlust start
projects or pol cies - the public expects
them to be able to f nish them too.
Essentially, implementation is as important
as ideology in po itics. "
ln other words, Wh tehall needs to back
up promises with action. And the way you
do that, says Richard, is by giving them the
tools to de iver.
"lf everyone becoming an MP had
a deep awareness of project management
from day one, then there would be
more chance that they wou d al operate
towards the same oblective - better
project de ivery. "
An MP training proqramme in the
discipline of project management wou d
be beneficial, but probab y unreal stic,
he adds. "To become an MP you have to
devote so much time to t that it often
prevents you from spending time on
other things that would give you more
experienc."," says R chard. "People often
compiain that MPs don't have enough
experience, but if they did, they probably
wou dn't be MPs "
It is another conundrum wh ch brings
Richard back to his frrst po nt about
having the right people in post in the
first place. He uses the announcement
of Dav d Higg ns as the new HS2 chief as
an example. "lts the best thing that has
happened to the prolect. David Hlggins
has the righr combination of background
"Of course the question remarns, 'why
you wouldn't get someone of that calibre
right from the beginning?"'
Longevrty is another challenge,
according to Richard. Repeated faillngs
can often be connected to rapid turnover
of both minrsters and civil servants in their
,+1il'.:i:''. ::'-::, -]: ''
.-' . 1.
Richard argues: "This strongly militates
against the possibility of things being done
well. There are some things that I hold
ministers responsible for but this book was
not an attempt at apportioning blame.
It's not an attack on the civil service or an
attack on ministers - I really wrote it to
understand better why things go wrong
quite so often."
"ln a way, this is a book pleading for better
project management, " explains Richard,
"but it is also about better management
The latter part of the book ts focused
on behaviour. By including a 50-
year history of attempted civil service
reforms which have under-delivered and
disappointed, the reader can see the
impact of human behaviour.
"My contention is, if you really want to
get improvements, including improvements
in projects, then you need to manage more
closely how people actually behave. In
order to do that, you need to understand
why people behave the way they do and,
to do that, you need to understand where
behaviour comes from. "
On page 340 of the book, Richard
makes this point abundantly clear.
"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?" Richard
points out that they are all well-observed
behaviours of chimpanzees, adding:
"Primatologists remind us that the roots of
politics are older than humanity."
He says: "We are social primates who
are pre-wired to behave in certaln ways to
defend our position. To get the best out
of people you have to study what makes
people tick. lts not an accident if you look
at the big organisations who come top in
the'best-to-work-for' surveys, whether
they're in manufacturing or services, public
or private sector, that they're organisations
that place a sustained premium on how
they look after and bring on their people.
"lts not an add-on, its part of what they
are and the consequence is they have great
people and do great things. "
He adds: "A lot of failure stems from
behaviour. We should spend more time
understanding how people behave, which
will help us navigate through the problems
we are facing. "
So where do we start? This. of
course, 15 tne conundrum tr