Managing the UK’s Digital Connectivity Drive

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In this episode we speak to Justin Leese, Programme Director at the United Kingdom’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Justin is responsible for the Government’s digital connectivity delivery programs at Building Digital UK, which provides connectivity for all of Great Britain, including its superfast broadband network and the rollout of 5G. In this interview, which is a bonus episode of the Project Management Paradise Podcast, Justin is going to discuss managing a PMO which is responsible for the UK’s digital connectivity.

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Transcript from Episode 108: “Managing a PMO Responsible for UK’s Digital Connectivity” with Justin Leese

Could you please introduce yourself?

I’m Justin Leese and I’m the Programme Director for all of the delivery programs at BD UK, which is Building Digital UK, at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).

Could you explain to our international audience, what this Department in the UK does?

We are a Department that’s been in existence for about 25 years and our ambition really it’s about delivering growth, enriching lives and promoting Great Britain to the world. We are really a very diverse collection of different sub-Departments, spanning everything from arts, including museums and art galleries all the way through libraries, we look after the tourist industry in the UK, things like the fashion industry, film, music, television and, of course, the area which my team focuses in, is the digital connectivity. We are actually one of the smaller Departments in Whitehall.

About a quarter of UK GDP has driven out of the other various sectors which our Department has responsibility for. And of course, many of those sectors are amongst the highest growth sectors in the UK, particularly when you look at the high tech and media industries that we have responsibility for.

What does that portfolio of work look like?

It’s a vast portfolio. We’ve got a number of separate work streams which are underway at the moment. The one that’s been running for the longest period of time is the super-fast program. That’s a £1.8 billion pound program that we’ve been running for about 6 years in the Department.

What we’ve been trying to do is to extend superfast broadband coverage, so that speeds above 24 megabits per second to the areas of the UK where the market hasn’t been building because it’s not economically sensible to do so. We’ve been assisting the market in expanding that coverage. In December of 2017, we reached the original target of 95% coverage and we’ve continued with that project and it was delivered on time and under budget. So we’ve taken the opportunity of using the remaining budget to keep going.

We are now at 96% coverage and we’ll keep going for a few more years until we’ve used up all of that funding. More recently, we’ve launched the local full fibre networks program of £280 million pounds. What we are doing through that program is stimulating the market to start to build the next generation of connectivity which is fibre all the way into a house, all the way into a business, to provide gigabit capable services.

Really, to future-proof the country for generations to come. A few weeks ago, we launched the next evolution of that, which we call rural gigabit connectivity and that’s very specifically focused on the hardest to reach, 10% of the UK. That’s a 200 million pound program which will run out to March 2021 and bringing full fibre connectivity and gigabit services to the more poorly connected parts of the UK.

What kind of projects are we talking about?

It’s the real mixture of them. The super fast program is really been working with a number of suppliers in the UK to drive out that super-fast connectivity to homes and businesses. So what we are doing through that, is the gap funding, looking at the commercial cost to roll out to those locations and what the market can afford to bear and then we gap fund the difference.

On the local full fibre networks program, it is a slightly different approach because we’re trying to stimulate the market. What we are doing there is we are funding upgrades to public buildings, so there might be schools or libraries or council offices. Our hope then is that by stimulating some new fiver build in a particular area of the UK that the market will then step in and keep going beyond that and connect homes and businesses in the surrounding area. Running alongside all of those, we have a voucher scheme that we’re running as well.

So this enables, in all areas of the UK, both businesses, small businesses and residents to get a voucher which subsidizes the cost of their connection to us. So, those are the connectivity projects that we’ve got running. Another major program that we’re running in parallel to all of that is we are preparing for the launch of 5G services in the UK. We are clearing up some of the radio spectrum that will ultimately be used by the mobile operators.

It is called 700 MHz band and it is currently used by the TV broadcasters for digital TV and it’s also used by program makers and special events businesses for their radio microphones. We’re running a program which is replacing all of that program making and special events equipment with equipment that runs on different frequencies.

And in parallel to that, going around every single TV transmitter in the UK, just over 1,100 of them and doing major engineering work at each of them to move all of the TV programs onto different frequencies to free up the existing frequencies. In theory, roundabout of summer 2020 onwards that spectrum should be clear. Our telecoms regulator, Ofcom can then auction that for use by the 5G mobile operators.

Before putting in the PPM solution, what kind of challenges did you have in managing such a diverse portfolio?

A number of challenges really. The first was that each of those projects was being run quite separately. So, each had its own unique ways of working. It made it very difficult for us to move resources from one project to another because the processes were following the tools that they were using for capturing data. And the overall governance of those projects was very, very different.

The other probably we had is that we haven’t invested in a PPM tool, so we were using, primarily, spreadsheets or traditional project management tools for Gantt charts and very, very manual reporting for all of those processes. When you add all of those projects together, you’ve got 3 billion pound portfolio. Running a portfolio of that scale using Excel and Word was not ideal. Putting Cora PPM in has enabled us to bring all of those projects into one place, into a single portfolio.

It’s allowed us to harmonize the way that we run all of those projects. There’s a consistent way of actually running those and the workflow that we use. And it brings all of the data into one place, so we have essentially a single version of the truth. As we roll all of that data up from the individual projects up to the program level, we can see across the whole portfolio in a very consistent way.

And how is the visibility a benefit for you now?

I guess there are two elements to the system itself in the way we use it today. At the working level, the individual project managers and project directors, have a powerful toolset which they can use for the day-to-day running of their projects. So they Gantt charts for tracking their milestones, their risks issues, and dependencies logs, change control processes, so everything they need to do on their project on a day-to-day basis is managed through the system.

As the director has overall responsibility for that portfolio, what that then enables me to do is I can see all that data flows up to our program management office and I can get reports that show me what’s going on across the whole of the portfolio. If I see that there is a key performance indicator that is suggesting there is a problem somewhere in the portfolio, I can then tunnel all way back down to the individual project and that that issues being flagged up through.

I get visibility at the macro level of being able to see the whole portfolio but I can tunnel all the way down to the detail and see what’s going on in an individual project. That’s very powerful for me in terms of my accountability for running the programs. All of these programs fit into something called our government major projects portfolio. We have the responsibility to report outwards to other government Departments on our progress.

So, for me, to be able to not just run my programs on a day-to-day basis, but also to be able to very quickly report upwards into our infrastructure and projects authority, government internal audit. There are other government Departments hugely interested in what we are doing, so whether that is from our industrial sector or whether it’s from a rural sector, those Departments want to know keenly what’s going on in our programs, are we on track, are we not on track ,if you’re off track when are we going to rectify that. So being able to very rapidly answer those questions is really important.

Customization must be important to you, is that the feature you find important in the Cora PPM?

Yes. Very much so. There’s a huge amount of functionality out of the box which we’re making use of, but we did have some very specific requirements on a number of our projects. A good example is our super-fast project. It’s because it’s a state aid program, we are providing state aid for the funding, there are some very specific things that we have to measure and track, in order to report back to Brussels on how that project is progressing.

We’ve got some very specific customizations which we have done in the system to enable us to track and report that with the right level of granularity. We found the Cora team, you know, super helpful in terms of implementing those changes for us, they are readily available, readily available on the end of the phone, we have somebody on site here at least every two weeks. And we found the system is very flexible in terms of the ability to customize it to our needs. And actually, it takes a relatively short period of time to make those changes, which is great.

How does the Smart Form and Registers capability operate? How does that help you?

We are using that in particular for our risk management but equally, we are starting to explore other ways that we use some of those modules from the system. If I think about our local full fibre networks program, it is probably a good example, we have set that up as a learning program. What we are trying to do is to stimulate the market to build fibre. We’re trying a number of different types of interventions in the marketplace which we think will then encourage telecoms companies to go and build more fibre.

We put a modest amount of funding in and then hope the market will jump in and put lots more funding in. We’re trying lots of different interventions and an important part of that program is the lessons learned activities. Each of the project teams is reporting back on how things are going, what is actually happening on the day-to-day basis in that program, what could we do differently.

As we move through successive phases of the project and things that are working well will do more of, things that are not working we might stop doing, or certainly do less of. We are using some of those models when the system starts to capture lessons learned activity and we just find it a really good way of tracking different types of activity.

Does this system give your control?

Yeah, I mean very much so. If you think about where we were previously, I had to glue together either through cutting-pasting or just you know mentally glue together the status from lots of different sources. It becomes very difficult to get that overall view of what’s going on it. It is such a vast collection of projects. If we are looking at the super fast program, within the program itself, at the peak there were more than 100 individual projects within that program.

Similarly, if we look at the 700mhz program, we’ve got upgrade activity underway at over 1100 transmitters around the UK. There are lots of moving parts and trying to conceptualize that when the data is in lots of different places, it wasn’t just difficult, it was nearly impossible. So having that clear visibility and being able to see that almost in real time because you got the project teams inputting data into the system that’s flowing up. I get a very up-to-date date of what’s going on, that allows me to have much greater control over what’s going on within the portfolio. I can see if there were issues much sooner, we can react to those and learn from those.

What are the best benefits from using Cora PPM system?

I think the speed at which we’re able to get the system up and running was key, so being cloud-based and being able to customize it really quickly was absolutely vital to us. I think the second thing is just the functionality that it provides. It’s got a good blend of tools that are useful to a project on a day-to-day basis and then tools which are useful to a PMO to be able to track what’s going on in a portfolio.

The part of the challenge always with a PPM system is convincing your project teams that on a day-to-day basis, the working level to actually use the tool. It’s not an afterthought that they go and put some data into the PPM tool but you’re successful and you win the day if you can actually just make it a normal part of their day-to-day activity, that this is the tool that they use to manage their projects on a day-to-day basis. And that they are not using a separate tool or a separate system somewhere to really run their projects and they just inputting data into the PPM system to satisfy the needs of the PMO and their program director.

The powerful toolset which they can actually use and is useful to them and a by-product of that is at my level and the PMO level, we get what we need is it kind of a win-win. And then I think the third thing is it’s just the functionality that the system brings, it’s pretty much got everything that we need. We are using a huge amount of functionality in the system but we can see there is so much more than you can do for us. And I think we’re really just beginning to scratch the surface of other things that the platform can do for us.

How is the working relationship with Cora?

The working relationship has been absolutely great. We found the Cora team really, very responsive to our needs. They’ve provided a resource on site, we have somebody here at least every two weeks. We found the team really good in understanding what we needed, understanding some of the challenges we had within our projects, the differences between the different types of projects, they all have slightly different dynamics and helping us bring all of that together into one system.

It has been fairly major transformation exercise for us and really it has not just been about taking a system and configuring a system. We’ve had to bring the people with us on the journey and change people’s ways of working, harmonize the processes across our different projects and get everybody trained. So, Cora has been integral to, not just configuring the system, but getting our teams on board, enthusiastic about using the tool, trained and capable in using the tool and a really getting everybody involved.

Would you recommend Cora to others?

Absolutely, we would recommend it. And in fact, we already have done so, even internally we have a parallel program that one of my colleagues is running called the 5G trials and test beds program. They saw how we were using the tool and we are absolutely convinced by the power of it and so our colleagues in the 5G program are now using the tool.

We’ve got the interest from elsewhere within DCMS but we’re already talking to other government Departments that are really interested in what we are doing. And they are now coming in and visiting us as a reference site with a view to doing something similar in their own Departments. The tool is a government G-Cloud product, so it is relatively straightforward for those other government Departments for them to procure if they like what they see.

Show Notes

Find out more about how Cora helps Government and Public Sector Projects

Cora also supports Construction and Engineering firms involved in Digital Connectivity programmes.

Justin Leese will be presenting in the Expertise Zone at Project Challenge on September 26th. Book your free Ticket at

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