HC 384 Assurance for high risk projects


Written evidence from Tim Manning

Subject: Session Written Evidence for "Assurance for High Risk Projects" (25 June)

I would like to submit the following written evidence to the above session on the 25 June.  This is based on my blog post of the 9 May ( http://design4services.com/2012/methods/assurance01/ )  on the Major Projects Authority:

The latest NAO report ( http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/1012/assurance_for_major_projects.aspx ) list a number of remaining weaknesses, including the degree of compliance across departments, HM Treasury buy-in and a lack of standard ways of working.

Historically, central efforts to improve the performance of government projects have focused on improving programme and project management and the use of independent (Gateway) reviews.  Despite recent major project failures such as the NHS National IT Programme, the focus appears to be on the need for greater rigour, rather than any change in approach.  Greater rigour may indeed be needed, but I see three major weaknesses with the current regime:

1. In terms of what is being assured, there is an excessive focus on "project management practices and approaches".  But these do not deliver projects.  Far more important is assuring the ‘technical’ approach and the business design, i.e. the actual value work. These have a much greater bearing on cost, time and quality.

2. There is a lot of attention paid to the management process surrounding the assurance of major projects, but very little to the actual act of assurance.  Effective independent assurance is not an easy task. It is by its nature subject to limited time and information. It requires the ability to see the ‘wood for the trees’ and to quickly focus in on the things that the success of a particular project will turn on.  This is not a capability easily acquired.

3. The process of central assurance, as set out in the report and on the MPA own web pages, comes across as very much stand-alone, rather than being integrated with the assurance processes that should exist within the project itself.  Independent assurance should be seen as an integral part of the project’s overall quality management system, as set out in the project’s Quality Plan, within which the required MPA "Integrated Assurance and Approval Plans" should be embedded.  This would create a far stronger assurance regime and help re-enforce those doing assurance on the ground.

What is referred to as "assurance" in the NAO report and by the MPA is more akin to quality control.  Quality assurance is about fixing the thing that created the specific instance of the error, whilst quality control is about fixing the error, in this case a particular problem with a given programme or project.

A system of assurance requires an effective feedback mechanism. Currently there is none.  The measure of success of any assurance system is that over time you need to do less of  it, because the detected error rate reduces, i.e. the ‘system’ is in a stable, predictable state. Large scale improvements in government project delivery will only come when the lessons have been learnt and are acted upon."

The original post can be found at:

In addition, I would like to add the following:
The failure of major government projects is often put down to the IT.   It's more complex than this. The real issue in my experience is that projects are frequently IT, not business-driven.  IT should be seen as an enabler and 'pulled' into the overall business design.  Too often the business design is driven by and centred around the technology, rather than the other way around. Not least, this often leads to whole areas of design being missed (or under-played/developed), and/or the business design being 'distorted' to fit the technology!  A good example of this is the Rural Payment Agency and the CAP Single Payment Scheme, which the committee is well familiar with.

Please acknowledge receipt.

14 June 2012

Prepared 13th July 2012