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The civil service is often criticised for its track record at delivering projects on time and on budget. But the commercial world doesn’t fare any better in this regard, with two out of every three private sector change programmes failing to achieve their aims.
The difference is that government projects receive far greater scrutiny. Often, if a commercial organisation doesn’t deliver, it can disguise its shortcomings – and, at the end of the day, any loss is borne by the organisation itself.
For the public sector, by contrast, wasted money comes straight out of the taxpayer’s pocket. And that means the stakes are high for any major project that is funded from the public purse.
Of course, it’s not enough to respond to project failure in the public sector by saying that the private sector gets things wrong, too. Instead, the civil service needs to focus on improving its delivery capability, so that failure is less commonplace.
London 2012 is an example of best practice that can inform such a process. The success of last year’s Olympics was due in no small part to a sense of common purpose and a highly effective delivery model.
Unencumbered by some of the politics that so often accompany large-scale projects in the public sector, most of the people involved in the Olympics were committed to making it work. The result was an effective collaboration between political parties, government departments and the public and private sectors – showing the world that “Britain can deliver”.
The delivery model for the Games, which started with a clean sheet of paper rather than sitting within an existing Whitehall department, was also highly successful. One reason for this is that there was clear senior management ownership from the outset, with a mandate to deliver. The respective roles of public and private sector partners were defined, with performance indicators linked to outcomes and a focus on effective supply chain management.
The key lesson for future projects is to get the delivery model correct at the start, therefore. And this may vary from project to project - it’s therefore important to get the right model to deliver required objectives. The model should also be integrated with the rest of the government’s operations, so that it does not disrupt business as usual, and facilitates a smooth transition to new ways of working.
The Olympics exemplified another cornerstone of effective civil service delivery: making best use of talent. At the moment, the rotation of senior personnel can lead to a lack of continuity in many major projects. Moreover, this merry-go-round approach to deployment means that civil servants have limited opportunities to develop expertise that does justice to their very evident ability.
So putting the right people in the right jobs, and allowing them to stay there long enough to do them effectively, is one of the learning points. Another is rewarding contractors and colleagues who achieve objectives. As PwC’s recent work in this field has shown, civil servants can receive meaningful recognition for their achievements that needn’t be financial.
Our civil service should have confidence in its ability to deliver projects and programmes, building on the success of the Olympics. To build on this, it needs to be brave from the outset of large projects to identify and empower the talent, give leaders a clear mandate and work effectively with both public and private sector to determine robust delivery models that will deliver the outcomes and value for money for the tax payer.
A version of this blog first appeared in Civil Service World.