Government transformation projects ‘promise too much at the outset’ – IPA chief

Civil service project delivery leader Tony Meggs preps guidance for departments ahead of Spending Review

The head of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has said that many government transformation projects start out on an “extremely ambitious” footing and set improbable goals and timescales.

To help improve the initiation of major schemes across government, the IPA has produced guidance for departments on how to get projects approved in the 2019 Spending Review.

In an interview with PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World – as part of a special report examining projects across government – IPA chief executive Tony Meggs set out the role of the joint Treasury-Cabinet Office agency ahead of the Spending Review, which is set to begin following the Budget this Autumn.

Meggs, who has led government’s project management profession since 2015, says there has been significant progress in upping the profile and prestige of projects and those who deliver them across government in recent years.

However, he highlights four main areas – project initiation, performance management, portfolio size, and getting the right skills in the right places – where improvements can still be made.

Included in the roster of major projects under the IPA’s watch are 29 that are grouped in the ICT category – costing the government a cumulative £10bn. Others, such as the implementation of the Emergency Services Network – which was given a red-light rating in the authority’s recent annual report – have a large technology element. 

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At the start of projects, Meggs says, there is a risk that too much is promised on too short a timeframe. To address this, the IPA is working to provide guidance to departments to ensure they submit high-quality proposals to the Treasury, as well as assisting the finance ministry to compare departmental plans against previous projects.

“To be really blunt about this, this is about promising too much at the outset, particularly on big transformation projects, which are very often extremely ambitious and where the initial timescale is set without proper project timing and review,” Meggs told CSW.

“I could give you plenty of examples of this – big projects where either at a Spending Review or after an election – early promises are made that are not based on realistic assumptions about how long things actually take. As we move into this Spending Review, we are using a lot of data about actual performance versus anticipated performance to inform decisions that are made.”

Meggs insisted that the IPA was “not just going to be Treasury dogsbodies or checkers, we’re helping departments”.

“We are not on anybody’s side here, we are on the side of getting good outcomes,” he said. “We are having discussions with departments and we are having discussions with the Treasury to make sure that, in their review of submissions, they are paying due attention to these things.

“We are planning to issue some bits of guidance to departments laying out the sort of things they need to consider when putting projects and big programmes into the spending review, and we are also taking the opportunity to look at some of the big programmes and see whether any resetting or recalibration of objectives or outcomes is necessary.”

Civil Service World’s major projects special report will this week look at the state of projects across the Government Major Projects Portfolio – covering infrastructure and construction, transformation and service delivery, information and communications technology, and military capability. Keep an eye on for updates this week.


Sam Trendall

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