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Episode 124: “Project Management Challenges in the Public Sector”

Project management challenges in the public sector is the topic of today’s episode and our guest is Phil Jones, Head of Business Consulting with “Methods” the UK’s leading independent transformation partner for public services.

Phil’s background is in occupational psychology and he has specific expertise in organizational change with charities, healthcare, central and local government. Phil began working in the public sector consultancy space in 2004, advising on the British Government’s National Program for IT. He has perspectives on project management challenges in the public sector from both sides and shares some of the lessons he has learned in this episode.


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Key points from Episode 124: “Project Management Challenges in the Public Sector

Project Management Challenges in the Public Sector

Can you tell us a little about your working background and the work projects that Methods is engaged in?

So, about 35 to 36 years ago, I made a move into public sector when I started working in the health national program for IT which was aimed at providing a stable platform across the NHS for all patient records, which seemed to me to make absolute sense and was quite an important step forward in its inception to improving public safety, particularly to the Health Service for making sure accurate and complete records were always available wherever you happened to need care. It seemed to make sense to me.

And from there, I moved from Health into wider government, just really through a fascination with the way that government functions and the people that work within it and the challenges that the government has got and I have to say, in all the time I’ve worked with public sector, those challenges have not let up. So it’s a fascinating place to work. It’s a fascinating group of organizations to work with and to get to know.

We’re in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, so tell us what new working challenges that the public sector bodies are experiencing when it comes to project management.

I think project management is suffering the same kind of pressures as all organizations at the moment. It becomes quite difficult to run complex, long-term projects when most of the team are not present in the offices or the places where the change is actually being delivered. And that’s brought about a whole series of challenges around timescales. And I think a greater focus on the duty of care that organizations have to make sure that whilst you’re making progress that you’re doing so in a way which is safe and supports people through that change.

You can’t just walk down the corridor anymore and talk to somebody if you’re having concerns or there were issues with the project and all of that now having to be done remotely has really just kind of added to the challenges around project management. And certainly in terms of organizations making sure that you were on track and that you can apply effective governance. This is particularly important for the public sector. I think also it’s kind of exposed, in the public sector particularly, some of the working practices which had to be changed quite significantly because of home working and the fact that you don’t have a base anymore.

I think it’s also exposed some of the issues around legacy technology, which the public sector has in Spades, which is technology, which is not necessarily as flexible as it could be to enable people to work at home more effectively. So, lots of issues around pressure on systems, pressure on bandwidth and integration of systems as well, which have kind of added to the issues. Alongside that, I think it’s also exposed quite a few opportunities. It has shown a number of public sector organizations just what can be achieved when you have no choice.

So, I think that has been really interesting to see how people have adopted new ways of working and have done so very quickly. And I think that’s kind of that’s had a very positive effect because of the case of “What if we can do that? What else could we also do if we don’t give ourselves a choice?” And I think that has opened up a lot of opportunities. It has not been an easy journey but I think there’s a lot of positive things which could be taken just from the way that the public sector has managed to completely change the way that it works almost overnight and has continued to deliver the essential services that it’s there to do.

What new trends do you see coming out of this?

I think that there is one which is, I think, legacy systems. So, I think the Covid pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in legacy systems and it’s kind of exposed those across the industry as well. British Airways having particularly bad experiences with their legacy IT which didn’t support them. The same thing has been true in the public sector, and particularly, I think in some central government departments, there is now a greater focus on moving away from massive outsourced contracts which are very difficult, when you have a sudden change such as was brought around by Covid, it is very difficult to have a nimble organization, one of the stable ones that respond quickly when a large percentage of your organization is actually held outside of the organization by a separate company.

So I think, there is a move now to disaggregate away from those big contracts and start to look at what is available in the market, how through having a different approach to the way that you deliver services and you have services delivered to you as an organization, you can actually benefit from massive advances in innovation, which have largely the public sector in some areas has been starved of because of these contracts. And also you can start to bring in new skills and new perspectives to help you get the very best out of that technology. And that kind of support I think that Cora Systems and Methods want to do, in terms of the project and program management, is very much in that kind of stream of “We can do this, we can do this difficult stuff. We’ve shown we can do it. What’s next? And how do we, kind of, use those experiences to be better at managing change particularly through the way we deliver projects?”

I think the other thing that it’s also exposed is a lack of skills and capabilities. I think along with a lack of investment, I think in IT systems, a lack of innovation. I think there’s been a lack of skills development for the people that work within the public sector. In some cases, you don’t know what you don’t know in effect. So, it has kind of placed a greater emphasis on horizon scanning, the art of the possible but there is really in a number of areas I’ve seen a move and in a demanding organization such as ourselves, to come up with new and more innovative ideas and much, much more being driven by governments’ aspirations rather than the traditional relationship, which is you bring in a company like ours and we talk to you about what we have, what we’re seeing.

Now, I think it is a much more healthy relationship where the public sector is saying “We know this stuff exists. We know that other people are able to do this. Why can’t we? We need this building in a way that works for us.” And I think that’s much more healthy. It needs to be much broader across government. But I do think this is focused on, now the government is becoming a really intelligent customer, which partly through Covid that’s accelerated the pace.

Typically, change is slow in these big organizations. What are the pitfalls and how can Methods help organizations to meet those and overcome them?

I don’t necessarily see any new ones. I think what’s happened is a number of the ones that have always existed have been kind of brought to the full board. So, I think organizations were always aware that the big outsource contracts that supported legacy IT in a number of areas, legacy IT which in some cases is no longer supported. I think all of those risks were known within the public sector, but I don’t think there was necessarily the emphasis on correcting those things. So I think one of the challenges is, which draws a lot of things together I think, is it’s just forced to speed up the pace the change.

Traditionally, we would go through multiple layers of governance in order to get something passed. That’s now been streamlined because in a way the country now is forcing the pace of that change and external organizations are also forcing the pace of that change and also public demand is changing. I think on the other side of that what you have is a massive debt which this has created which does have a significant impact on both the pace of change, but also in an area which has frustrated me for a while, which is in what you’ve actually got for the investment you’ve made, which frequently you find that when we become engaged there will be a number of projects that have been delivered historically. We never delivered the benefits that you expected and there are, it’s almost like, you know, that the project folders that are produced as part of this work they are just holding doors open in different places and parts of the organization.

And that kind of lazy consultancy just doesn’t work anymore. It never really works but it’s now much more obvious. Because when resources are cut to the extent that they have been and will be further in the future I believe and the demand on the public services continues to increase and change and vary, you know, as life becomes more complex. You don’t have any choice about change anymore, you know, we have to do that. But when we do it, we can’t afford to go down dark alleys. And we just simply can’t afford it. So in the public sector, now what that means for project management for companies like Methods is that everything that we do is tightened now to a clear benefit, a clear return on investment, and some very clear measures as to whether the investment we’ve made as a public sector, taxpayers money did that then result in what we hoped it would result in. And if it didn’t, then we need to correct that.

There can’t be any more of the consultancies that come in, the big consultancies particularly and I am not simply saying this because they are competitors, they’re not ready for us. But the big consultancies who come in that we find a lot of the work has looked marvelous, absolutely beautiful, beautifully crafted, it’s done by very credible people but it fails to deliver because when you don’t complete that whole change process, you don’t stand a hope in being able to deliver that. And that is the problem frequently by the time you get to the end of that project. You can’t afford to have the consultancy deliver it as well.

So, you have to try and do that yourself and then you find a kind of public sector littered with projects which started well, started with the right intentions, very good people working in it, but just have never delivered the benefits they should have done. Companies like mine are very, very aware of that. I just want to be clear that this is not the complete picture. That is what frustrates me a lot and that is the case of “Will you bring us in?” Not because we are nice people, not because of that. It is because of our experience and frequently, we don’t have contracts. We don’t have projects. We don’t have delivery which is configured to get the best out of the experience and enabling people to honestly say to clients “We understand what you want to achieve. We don’t think this is the best way of doing it.” So I’m focused on one particular area, which is the area that generally makes programs particularly big programs stumble. That’s quite a big area.

So, just to focus on one particular part of it, which is I think part of what most frustrates organizations is the actual landing of change. So, getting people to do things differently as a result of the program and that’s when change actually happens. It sounds very simple, but it’s something that frequently fails to occur. So, there’s an element which is about structuring your program and your project and your change management very well. There is definitely a clear need to ensure that whatever you’re doing is linked to your strategic aims and ambitions and you have good ineffective governance, well-skilled project managers and a clear set of deliverables.

All of those things are very important. But what generally causes problems for delivery particularly within the public sector is that most of the change, so the understanding of the change, the reason why we’re doing is, that is sold very effectively at the most senior levels, because they’re the people that approve commission, they’re the people that sign off the checks, they’re the people that most organizations spend their time influencing. What then often happens is that you have even in a very well-designed and well-configured program of change.

It has its own pace and in also the rationale for making those changes is often not understood at the operational level and frequently you find that there is a lack of engagement on the operational level because there are a whole lot of assumptions made about well “This is what we’ve been commissioned to do. This is what will then go ahead and do and we just want people to work in a different way. Here is a different piece of technology, work in a different process.”

And because the benefits are missing from all of that at an operational level, actually getting the change to land effectively generally doesn’t happen in the way that you hope it will. I’ve come across projects which have been very well structured, again managed by very capable people for all the best intentions and with a clear need for that change, but that point at which you kind of get to “Now I need you to use a different system, you are no longer talking to James in accounts, you will be talking to somebody else. We are moving you, we are giving you a new front end.”

People are very often not given enough time to understand that and also the way that it’s delivered often doesn’t engage with those people at an early enough stage. So, it’s great if you can sit down with somebody and just say to them “What is the most frustrating part of the way you work today?” and what you often find is outdated systems, processes which don’t work effectively, so there are multiple failures reworking, checking and so on.

All of this is frustrating. If you can align your project to say “Well, I will tell you what, how about if  one of the first things we do is we take away that need to double enter everything or we start to work with you on how we could fix that process that would help you land change effectively.” I can remember working on the program for IT, the national program for IT and Health Service. We had a very well-funded, very well-supported program which failed because one receptionist in one outlying community clinic had not been properly engaged, could not see the point of using the system, and therefore didn’t input the data. Because that data wasn’t input, we never got a complete data set and it took us ages to work out what was going wrong.

So, in my mind, sufficient knowledge, understanding of how the change could improve people’s working lives is generally about “We have got some targets that we now need to hit, some demands coming from the government that we need to do to ensure we can comply with and also, you know resources are being cut and so we need to make these changes.” There are generally lots and lots even when life is very tough, there are generally multiple options you can choose. It makes sense to me that you engage properly at an early enough stage to find out what’s actually the option of working at an operational level. Let’s go with that one as far as we can.

Show Notes

Find out more about Methods at methods.co.uk.
Follow Methods on Twitter @MethodsDigital
Connect with Phil on LinkedIn here.
Cora’s Government Project Management software solution has been helping solve project management challenges in the public sector for 20 years. Find out more by watching an overview of Cora PPM at corasystems.com/takeatour.

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