“Governance of Public Sector projects”

Gerry spent more than 20 years in Ireland’s Department of Environment, Community & Local Government, responsible for technical oversight to support the development and implementation of policies, strategies, and the investment program for the water sector in the country. Gerry joined Irish Water, the national water utility, on its establishment in 2013, in the role of Chief Technical Officer where he served for seven years. Gerry now works as a consultant water utility expert for Cora Systems., Gerry Galvin. You’re very, very welcome to Project Management Paradise. Thank you for joining us today. We have a lot of things to talk about regarding the governance of public sector projects.

You didn’t start in the public sector. Gerry, tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into project management.

I qualified as a civil engineer. I started working in the public sector actually for the first five years at the city council. As part of my role, I was involved in the project management of direct labor crews programs carrying out minor works programs. I then left the public sector and went to the private sector, a firm of consulting engineering where I became much more involved in project management of the whole cycle from feasibility through design to procurement and construction and contract closeout for both public sector and private sector clients.

After spending eight years there, I re-joined the public sector working for the government ministry responsible for water services in Ireland, both policy and investment. And as part of my role there, I represented the departments for approximately 12 years on the Government construction contracts committee, having an oversight role on all public sector capital expenditure, both procedures, and contracts.

In that role, part of the time I was on that committee was in developing and implementing the capital works management framework, which was implementing the governance procedures applying to any project benefiting from Exchequer funding. Then, when Irish Water, the national water utility was set up in 2013, I joined in the role of Chief Technical Officer of the management team, where, as part of my role, again, I served as a quorum member of both the contract approval committee and the expenditure approvals committee.

Tell us what you found about the fundamental differences between governance in the public sector and the private sector.

One of the big differences in public sector projects is that they tend to be large complex projects carried out very much in public view. So, they involve a large number of statutory authorities and other non-statutory bodies, as well as impacting on business and community groups. For that reason, everything and every decision made throughout the lifecycle of that public project implementation has to be very transparent. Also, it has to be communicated to those stakeholders with supporting evidence.

Examples of those types of projects are safe drinking water and wastewater treatment plant projects, transportation projects, like roads and public transport, hospitals and educational institutions, social housing, projects and things like public walking, trails, public realm, improvement works in pedestrianization of town centers, and that sort of thing. So, they tend to be very much in the public view and they don’t always have a clearly calculatable business case in terms of return on investment.

They tend to be more about facilitating other projects or developments, or improving amenities or improving transportation or water quality, for example. And they also tend to take a significant length of time, often 10 years or more to go from project inception to project completion. And that also has a greater number of risks and a greater number of difficulties, including, for example, mobility of members of the project teams who can tend to move along for many reasons over that period of time.

What kind of scale of accountability does a typical public sector project entail?

There is a huge level of accountability on most public sector projects. Firstly, the public sector body delivering them is responsible to their board or if it’s a council, to their elected members, then they’ll be accountable to the funding departments, the government department providing the funding, and ultimately to the local ratepayer or indeed the national taxpayer.

Because of that, they will be subject to either local audit or national audit and ultimately to public expenditure review committees, at a national level. And it’s very important again because of the long duration of these projects, that there is a retrievable archive of all documentation and records of decisions, taken from the inception of the project through to its completion.

What’s the greatest challenge to maintaining the governance on these projects?

One of the big challenges is document management and ensuring that the records and supporting documentation, are maintained in a central repository and are retrievable. Obviously, for many years, these records were kept in paper format and therefore, proved very difficult to retrieve, as well as of course, having the risk of fire or flooding, destroying such records. And those project developers like the public bodies and also their advisors like the architects, consulting engineers, project managers are also digitizing all these documents now. So that they will always remain retrievable.

What advice would you give when it comes to managing communications with such a breadth of customers or partners as you would in a public sector project?

It is very important to develop at the outset and maintain throughout the project, the stakeholder communication strategy and to identify the needs of those stakeholders as regards information and indeed the channels which are best suited to meeting those needs. Some will be quite happy to receive email updates, others will look for social media, others will want more formal or will require more formal notification.

What is very important particularly during the planning phases, is to consult with all the stakeholders, to understand what their issues might be with the project and to communicate with them openly and clearly. If you can do that, it will ensure that the project will get through the planning process with minimum objections thereby avoiding any risk of appeals or indeed judicial reviews, which would obviously delay these projects significantly if they were to arise. But communication strategy is essential, ensuring the smooth passage through the process required and during the planning phase of a project.

Can you manage one size fits all or is it possible to maintain that kind of communication?

You shouldn’t have a one size fits all, that is the basic point I’m making. Your strategy should include a stakeholder matrix, which identifies, first of all, the issues that are of importance, also what communication channel they are looking for. Some might want face-to-face meetings. Public meetings are a very effective way of transparently communicating with both elected members and with community groups as to the plans and progress in implementing a project. There is an enormous effort on public sector bodies to ensure transparency in their decision making and in particular, in how they’re spending public funds in the interest of the local ratepayer or the national taxpayers as to how whatever project is being funded.

What can you do to keep your project as best on track as you can?

That all comes down to risk management and initially identifying all these potential risks. I’m sure anybody planning a project three years ago did not include a Coronavirus pandemic as a risk. Of course, there are several other risks such as the one you mentioned like a flooding event or any other severe weather event. That should be anticipated in the risk management strategy and to have the mitigation measures identified and ready to go if that risk materializes during the course of the project.

Obviously, you have a long list of risks identified. So, the important thing is to be able to rate those risks as regards their probability and their impact, and to clearly put more effort into the more significant risks. Those that are rated more highly, because they will lead to delays on the project or they’ll end up in the cost overruns on the project, you need to put the resources into mitigating those risks from the outset.

Gerry, if you put yourself back into your boots, when you’re starting out in the public sector, after your time in the private sector, what tips would you give to a program manager starting out?

The first thing is to ensure that everybody involved in both the project team, in the senior management in the public body, and in among all the stakeholders, understands the governance framework under which the project is being delivered. Because delays in the decision making can be as big a contributor to cost overruns, as unforeseen weather conditions, for example.

It’s important that everybody involved in decision-making understands what their role is, how important timely decision-making is in ensuring the project remains on time and on budget. So it is very important also to have clear governance frameworks set out and that everybody involved in the decision-making within that framework, on whatever level, understands the importance of the role they are playing to the delivery of the project.

Tell me what was the greatest challenge you experienced on the project and how you managed to mitigate and manage it?

The greatest challenge in all public sector projects is what I referred to earlier, it’s on stakeholder management and in ensuring the wide range of stakeholders, many of whom will have competing interests, understand the rationale for the decisions made. They might not agree with the decision made because it impacts them, but they need to understand the rationale, as to how the public body developing the project has weighed up the different interests and arrived at the decision they are taking to deliver the project.

Show Notes

Connect with Gerry on LinkedIn

For further assistance on issues covered in this podcast episode, get complimentary access to “Good Governance in the Delivery of Public Capital Projects” here

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