Delivering Government Major Projects in a Modern Age

'Project delivery is at the heart of government activity. It touches almost everything that we do.' says Tony Meggs

Tony Meggs at PMI Global Executive Council


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am honoured to be giving the closing keynote of what has been a fascinating couple of days.

Thank you PMI for facilitating this event. It is important that we get together as a global project management community so we can discuss the big issues that are facing us all.

It is clear to me that we have a lot in common and there is lot we can learn from one another.

It is in that spirit that today I want to share with you some of our challenges and how we are meeting them, and in doing so paint a picture of what it is like to deliver government projects in a modern age.

I will focus on three challenges in particular:

The scale of delivery and how this is forcing us to prioritise and take a more portfolio management approach in government.

The political realities of what it takes to deliver major projects and what I like to call ‘Crossing the Valley of Death’ - bridging the gap between policy and delivery.

And protecting the integrity of assurance while we are also trying to become the most transparent government in the world.

Role of technology

Before I do that, some reflections on a central theme of this conference - the impact technology is having on the way we deliver projects, and indeed on the projects themselves.

The increasing digitization of everything is leading to changes in project management techniques - in particular the use of agile methods of delivery.

In my view, this is proving very successful in moving us away from a previous era of mega IT disasters. These kind of mega meltdowns are far less likely to happen now, in large part due to this iterative approach. And I think agile methods may have wider applications across other parts of the government portfolio.

As another example, the much-hyped Artificial Intelligence revolution may start to impact our ability to interpret project data, and use it to improve performance.

A few weeks ago I met a young entrepreneur with a background in project delivery and AI, who has set up a company that could revolutionise the way we are able to predict project schedules.

He has used AI to develop algorithms based on a very large amount of schedule data, taken from thousands of projects. By comparing original plans with final outcomes, on a line by line basis, the algorithms can significantly improve our ability to predict actual schedules from initial estimates.

It is basically benchmarking by another name. And a great example of how technology is improving our ability to control and predict projects.

Building Information Modelling is another approach that promises to revolutionise the way in which projects are delivered – one we are mandating on all government construction projects. As BIM spreads down the supply chain, the opportunities to increase productivity and improve project controls will multiply.

Perhaps even more profound is the impact of technology on the projects themselves.

There are countless examples. But it is interesting to contemplate the possible impact of autonomous electric vehicles on future power and transportation infrastructure. Current planning paradigms could be overturned very quickly indeed, at least according to some scenarios.

Who knows where all this will take us. I look to the future project leaders in the room to show us the way.

Project delivery landscape in UK Government

Fundamentally the UK government is a project orientated organisation.

Almost all government policy is delivered through projects or programmes of one form or another. Therefore it is absolutely vital that we deliver these projects well. If we don’t, then the government’s policy objectives will not be achieved.

What this means is that project delivery is at the heart of government activity. It touches almost everything that we do.

Building road and rail, creating defence capability, modernizing IT and transforming the way government provides public services to citizens - all of this is delivered through projects or programmes.

As a result, a mature ecosystem for effective delivery has built up over time.

This ecosystem includes project evaluation methodologies such as HM Treasury’s Green Book; project initiation methodologies such as the Project Initiation Routemap; independent assurance against a clear set of project standards; and sophisticated approaches to training and developing project leaders.

It is also an ecosystem that we export all around the world.

The burning platform for the creation of what would become the IPA, was the fact that two decades ago there were a huge number of project failures taking place.

This coalesced with a growing movement to modernise the civil service and show that we could be trusted to deliver.

The seeds of IPA’s creation were sown back in 2000, when the government established the first ever mandatory OGC Gateway process - a way for central government to peer review and examine projects at key decision points in their lifecycle.

Over the years this led to the creation of the Major Projects Authority - a unit in the Cabinet Office with a Prime Ministerial mandate to establish and report on a formal Government Major Projects Portfolio. Otherwise known as the GMPP.

Based on the recognition that great project leaders deliver great projects and the need to develop senior project leaders in government - the MPA then partnered with Oxford Said Business School to create the Major Projects Leadership Academy.

This was massive milestone and the MPLA is regarded as the gold standard for project leadership training.

Having combined with Infrastructure UK to become the IPA, we now report to both the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury - the two central departments of government - which provides us with a unique perspective and position.

It has strengthened our influence and our expertise in major infrastructure projects, reflecting the government’s increased investment in this area.

The key thing is that we have evolved from focusing on just assurance, to a much more system wide approach.

We operate as a functional model, focussed on developing capability in government, driving excellence by setting standards, deploying expertise on specific projects and de-risking projects.

This is an approach that is common in many corporations where you have cross-cutting teams of people to support specific business objectives.

IPA’s central mission is to improve the way projects are delivered in order to deliver government priorities and improve people’s lives.

It is with this mission that we have four enduring priorities:

  1. To set up projects for success
  2. To build capability in government
  3. To create the right environment, and;
  4. To measure and improve performance

I want to emphasise the importance of measuring performance. We are improving our ability to track how projects are performing so we can use that data to feed back into the system, learn lessons and drive new initiatives.

Creating a continuous feedback loop, we want to keep improving the system and overall project performance.

Current challenges

So that brings us to now. And as we progress with this new mission, we are facing some challenges to the way projects are delivered across government.

Challenges which are forcing us to adapt so we can meet them head on.

  • Scale of delivery

The first is the sheer scale of what we are delivering.

The current GMPP is comprised of 143 projects worth over £455 billion, across 17 departments. This doesn’t include the 100 or so projects in early development, many of which will come on to the GMPP in due course.

This reflects a very broad and ambitious policy agenda. And all of these projects are diverse in their nature, objectives and complexity.

They range from capital intensive infrastructure projects like HS2 - a new high speed rail network linking the south and north of the UK - to major transformations like HM Courts Reform, which will totally modernise the way people interface with the courts service.

And this doesn’t even include the most recent addition to our portfolio, the “Mega Programme” called EU Exit. It is comprised of a significant number of individual projects and programmes - all with multiple dependencies and delivery challenges.

One of the benefits of EU Exit is that it is forcing us to collaborate and work across government in ways we haven’t before. Eu Exit related programmes are being delivered across departments.

The Borders programme serves as a useful example; there are more than 30 government agencies operating at the border.

Modern government is a more joined up one. But this brings added complexities.

We are adapting the way we organise ourselves in order to meet this demand. We are collaborating with other government functions to provide central support to EU Exit related projects.

This crowded agenda is forcing us to prioritise - something government can find difficult.

And in order to help make this prioritization happen, IPA will have a bigger role in helping departments manage their portfolio, ensuring risks are balanced and resources are properly allocated.

Each department is separate and very different to one another. They are all delivering very different projects. With different IT systems and internal processes. And portfolios which are managed differently within departments. And most importantly, commitments to different policy agendas.

It would be like taking all the companies in the room here today, such as Airbus, Dell, IBM and Microsoft, and trying to do portfolio management across all of your projects combined.

It is very challenging and made even more complicated when you have to operate within a political context.

  • Political realities

And this brings me on to our second challenge - dealing with the political realities of delivering major projects in government.

We all know that project initiation is the biggest key to success, alongside the skills and expertise of project leaders.

The ingredients for project failure - such as lack of clear objectives and poor stakeholder alignment - are well rehearsed. What is common in them all is that they can be tackled in the early initiation stage.

Yet it is in this vital stage where government has a unique disadvantage.

To some extent, politicians are in the business of making announcements according to the electoral cycle. And too often these announcements are overly detailed in their commitments to specific outcomes, by specific dates.

It is entirely appropriate to make these commitments and to be held to account for them. But we want to make sure those commitments can be delivered.

Drawing from my experience in R&D, I call this gap between policy and delivery, the ‘Valley of Death’.

This is akin to scaling up something that works in the laboratory to something that works at an industrial scale. Those who have been involved in that process know just how complex it can be and how often it can go wrong.

Bridging the Valley of Death requires involving delivery expertise very early into policy development, to ensure that policy is framed within the context of how it can be delivered. And that commitments made are commitments that can be delivered.

One of my aspirations is to ensure an assessment of deliverability is carried out before any specific policy announcements are made.

As well as going upstream in the project lifecycle, we also need to go upstream in seniority. This means as well as training project leaders, we need to train the leaders of project leaders.

One important change recently has been to increase accountability among Senior Responsible Officers, ensuring their approval of a project is publicly available.

  • Protecting the integrity of assurance

But increasing transparency isn’t always in a project’s best interest.

Civil servants are held to a very high standard of accountability and scrutiny, and rightly so.

In the private sector you don’t have this issue to the same extent. You would never dream of having your project contracts or - names of programme directors - published.

We are unequivocally in favour of increasing transparency.

We publish detailed annual reports and data on the delivery assessments of all government’s major projects, and SRO appointments.

But we must also recognise that greater transparency can have its own set of challenges and perverse outcomes. In very exceptional circumstances, it may not always be in the public interest.

One of these areas is the detailed assurance review reports and their content. Through the use of the Freedom of Information Act, we are facing increasing pressure and a growing desire to publish these documents.

I believe if we go down this path, it will undermine the whole integrity of the assurance system.

It is in the public interest to keep these reports confidential so we can maintain the safe space for peer review and constructive challenge for project leaders.

Publishing reviews would only foster a greater sense of risk aversion - something we don’t need more of!

Especially at a time when we are encouraging our project leaders to take more risks, adopt new technologies and embrace uncertainty.

Our world class assurance regime is the bedrock of all that we do. After all, it was why we were first created back in 2000.

So it is in this modern era that we need to keep on protecting it.


In summary, we are facing some unique - but also exciting - challenges in government project delivery.

We are undertaking our own internal transformation in the IPA to make sure we are equipped to meet these challenges.

This includes taking a stronger portfolio view so we can help prioritise and support EU Exit; going more upstream in both project lifecycle and leadership; and protecting the integrity of our world class assurance regime - the foundation upon which we were built.

The ecosystem of project management is well evolved over the years. That includes specific project management techniques.

But these are changing as we embrace new technology and enter into a new modern era for delivery.

All of these challenges require adaptive leadership in order to address them, as well as technical leadership.

My challenge to the future project leaders in the room is to learn these techniques and help us along that journey.

As you are the future generation who will see us through this modern age.

Thank you.

Published 21 March 2018