Projects fit for purpose: delivering more with less in the public sector


A recent report has investigated what makes successful project management in the public sector. John Lakin, one of the researchers for the report, comments on the lessons for higher education.

Discussions of weaknesses in project management in the public sector are not new, with the National Programme for IT in the NHS only the latest of a series of high profile failures.

But what makes a successful project?  This was the question posed by the Project Management Institute when it commissioned the consultancy firm London Economics to identify the success factors that make projects fit for purpose in a fiscal environment that requires the public sector to deliver more with less.

The research interviewed 25 senior managers with a responsibility for delivering projects in the last few years, covering central government, local government, non departmental public bodies and higher education.  The interviewees identified six success factors.

1.  Good communication permeates good project delivery. It is concentrated at the leadership level, but includes the whole organisation as well as external stakeholders. Communication needs to be timely, clear, sufficiently (but not excessively) detailed, use appropriate (non-technical) language and appropriate settings or media.

2.  Strong and visible leadership, both in terms of active management, setting the culture on the project team, and communicating effectively internally and externally is central. It includes formulating, articulating and communicating the vision for the project; building support for the project’s aims and the approach taken within the organisation and among external stakeholders; and being prepared to act decisively in support of the project’s objectives when problems arise.

3.  Getting the set up right at the outset is fundamental to the success of a project. This issue is complex, and raises questions relating to the structure of public sector bodies and the way projects often need to operate outside an organisation’s normal structures. Sufficient funding, a compelling, well-defined objective, and the groundwork necessary to get the support needed from internal and external stakeholders are all crucial success factors at the origination stage.

4.  Using project management methods is seen as necessary, but not sufficient for project success. Indeed there is a degree of scepticism towards some project management tools, which are seen as rigid, geared toward standardised, technical projects and insufficiently responsive to the demands of people-centred change. Softer skills such as stakeholder engagement and communication are seen as equally valuable even though they rarely receive sufficient space within standard methodologies.

5.  Stakeholder engagement was seen as crucial for success, and many examples showed that a great deal of effort needs to be invested here. This raises the question of whether projects with supportive stakeholders are inherently more likely to succeed, which in turn has implications for the relative importance of other success factors.

6.  Finally, the makeup and resourcing of the project team and the culture in which it operates all affect success. Technical skills in the team are indispensable, but good working relationships are often seen as at least as important. Project managers and their teams also need to be given sufficient time, and continuity, to do their work and not be expected to do it on top of the day job.

These lessons are just as applicable to higher education as they are to other public sector organisations, and indeed some of the best examples of successful project management came from universities.  Each factor in isolation does not guarantee success, but taken as a group they offer the best chance of achieving project success.

John Lakin is an independent consultant and board member of Procurement UK, the body established by Universities UK to take forward the procurement recommendations in the Diamond Review. His report is available from London Economics website.