Assurance for major projects - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Capacity and capability issues

6.  The Authority is responsible for reporting on over 200 major projects with a total whole life cost of £376 billion. It has a budget of £6 million and 38 full-time equivalent members of staff, some 40% less staff than its predecessor, the Major Projects Directorate of the Office for Government Commerce.[12] The resources applied to assurance work in the private sector are often significantly greater than those in the public sector.[13] We asked whether the Authority was adequately resourced given that it was required to deliver more work with fewer resources than its predecessor. The Authority told us that, in agreement with HM Treasury and departments, it prioritised its workload based on those projects which were considered to be high risk, high value, and with the potential for high reputational damage if they go wrong. Other projects in the portfolio get less in-depth attention from the Authority. The Authority acknowledged that the size or risk attributed to a project was not necessarily an indication of how well the project was run and that there was a danger that it could miss problems which might arise in smaller projects.[14]

7.  The Authority does not measure the outcomes from its assurance interventions, but told us that it was working with HM Treasury to create a performance framework to capture this information.[15] We asked what consideration had been given to quantifying the financial return from the current level of investment in the assurance system and whether investment in additional assurance work could result in further savings.[16] HM Treasury told us that it had not undertaken such an analysis but it was supportive of investments which 'spend to save'.[17]

8.  The Authority told us that because it did not have the resources to carry out focused assurance work across the portfolio, it was targeting the improvement of civil servants' project management skills as a means of reducing the project failure rate.[18] The Major Projects Leadership Academy, a joint venture between the Authority and Oxford University, was launched in April 2012 with the aim of training 200 to 300 senior civil servants in project management skills within three years.[19] From March 2014, all Senior Responsible Owners of major projects will be required to have attended the Academy and have two years' operational experience before being appointed to manage a major project.[20]

9.  The Academy is a welcome step in strengthening the project management skills of civil servants, but retaining and making best use of those trained will be a challenge.[21] Managing large projects is as much of a challenge for the private sector as for the public sector and there is a danger that individuals will leave the civil service once trained. The Authority told us that retaining staff would depend on ensuring that conditions in the workplace allowed staff to use their skills to best effect and feel supported, appreciated and rewarded. The Academy is being supplemented with a project leaders' network for Senior Responsible Owners to share ideas, information and provide peer support.[22] But the Authority also needs to ensure that individuals strengthen their knowledge with the right experience, and get recognition for doing a good job.[23]

10.  To make best use of the skilled Senior Responsible Owners, it is important that they remain on the job for the right length of time. This Committee has frequently highlighted the detrimental effect of "churn" of staff on the delivery of projects. In particular, the Ministry of Defence does not keep Senior Responsible Owners in post for long enough before they are moved on to new roles.[24] The Authority told us that it was working with the Ministry of Defence and other departments on their deployment of Senior Responsible Owners and project directors to increase flexibility in appointments and reduce this "churn" rate.[25]

12   Q 62, C&AG's Report para 2.4 Back

13   Qq 2-3 Back

14   Qq 35, 36, 63 Back

15   Q 114 Back

16   Qq 41, 114 Back

17   Q 100 Back

18   Qq 9, 34 Back

19   Q 86 Back

20   Qq 88,90 Back

21   Qq 93, 95 Back

22   Q 86 Back

23   Qq 93-94 Back

24   Q 77 Back

25   Qq 79-82 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 16 October 2012