In Praise of Public Servants
Someone once said that life was like learning to play the piano in a public concert. I think I know what they mean. We all feel vulnerable when we make mistakes. Nobody likes being seen making a mistake. So we try to do this secretly, don’t we?
When it comes to the area of project management and strategic change, this works itself out in a different way: it is very hard to see good case studies. Why? Because a “warts and all” account might show the organisation or people within it in a poor light. They would not publish such a report.
This is a pity because the rest of us could learn valuable lessons. We could learn from their mistakes and so avoid failure in those areas.
But that is not going to happen. Organisations can suffer reputational damage, even damage to their stock prices if some juicy failure leaks into the public domain. As a result, there is a dearth of learning.
The opposite can also be true: an organisation innovates, makes a breakthrough, a disruptive change. As a result, that firm makes huge inroads into a market previously dominated by its competitors. So is it going to share how it achieved the breakthrough? Senior management gets uneasy. Surely this would erode their competitive advantage. Better to keep it under wraps. And so more potential learning is kept from us all.
An Outstanding Exception
There is an outstanding exception to this pattern. And this exception has played a significant part in my own career. The exception is the public sector best practices; particularly, the UK Central Government. Here we have a government that is subject to intense, and sometimes very public scrutiny.
In the area of major public projects, over the three decades from the 1960’s, there were some major failures: such as Trident, TSR2, and Nimrod. The UK Central Government began to set about identifying and defining what it called project management “best practice.” It codified it, first into a methodology called PROMPT, then PRINCE®, and finally PRINCE2®.
And it did this publicly.
Private sector consultants were not ready to praise these efforts too quickly. Some were even quite critical, in fact, but the truth was we all benefited from this sharing.
A Rude Awakening
For the early part of my career, I worked in the public sector in the UK, in local government across three different bodies in 15 years. After this, I made the transition to the private sector.
At that time, we were watching TV programmes like, “Yes, Minister.” (See this post’s feature image.) I believed the stereotypes. Public bodies were extremely bureaucratic, stuffy, hierarchical, formal, and conservative, whilst private sector organisations were all entrepreneurial, more casual in dealing with each other, and, above all, innovative.
In 1990 I made the transition to the private sector.
I was in for a rude awakening.
I found the organisation I had joined was far more hierarchical, bureaucratic, self-indulgent and inert than I had experienced in the public sector. My government days felt positively entrepreneurial. This was counter to all the stereotypes.
The truth was, and still is, that within central Government there is much progressive, innovative work. This had to come forth when the public was seeing so much waste on major projects. Excellence emerged.
Much of my career has centred around progressive management approaches such as PRINCE2®, MSP™, P3O® and more recently, Better Business Cases™. These have all helped UK public programmes succeed more often than not. Partly driven by HM Treasury, partly by the Cabinet Office, and partly by the National Audit Office, the UK Government has raised its game in programme and project management significantly. And all this in the context of a fairly hostile national press and intense political scrutiny through the Public Accounts Committee.
Managing Successful Programmes™
With MSP (Managing Successful Programmes), I recently was part of the panel on a Webinar, hosted by Axelos the owners of MSP, and I noticed keen interest from all over the world. This framework is, in many ways, ahead of its time. For example, I was asked: “Can you make MSP agile?” My answer, in brief, was, “It already is agile.” And I went on to explain why.
The year before the Rio Olympics, the Banco Central do Brasil invited me to speak at a conference in Brasilia on MSP programme management. I used the London Olympics Case Study. You can imagine, only months away from the Rio Olympics they were all ears. I am continuing to discover other countries benefiting from the wealth of good practice coming out of the UK Central Government.
Better Business Cases
Better Business Cases (BBC) is another gem. Pioneered out of Whitehall and the Welsh Government, BBC takes the business case and turns it into a strategic tool that develops in a most appropriate way throughout the start and life of a project. We hear of the UK’s NHS using this to good effect.
Say “business case” to most project managers, and you can watch their eyes glaze over. BBC turbo-charges the approach and handling of the business case.
So, all’s well then?
So, is all well then with UK Government “best practices”? I’m not so sure. Not so long ago the Cabinet Office effectively sold off its ownership of most of these management methods and practice to a private concern, Axelos. To give them credit, it seems that Axelos is making gains in scaling adoption across the globe but I’m not sure that the development of these products will be as vigorous, rigorous and authentic as it was when it clearly came out of public sector ownership.
Also, major government projects now have the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA). Several of my clients have been through this programme and speak very highly of it. One of my associates has actually worked with the faculty. However, there is strong protection by Oxford University’s Said Business School of its intellectual property. This is a traditional academic value system of protecting and hoarding intellectual capital, and this School has a particularly assertive commercial agenda. So the rest of us are not likely to benefit from some of the key learning within the Academy as much as we might from a more generous, sharing approach.
It seems that the more Central Government outsources, no doubt for otherwise good reasons, there is a loss in helping better practice more generally, that nobody in the private sector can give.
What are your views and experiences on this? Leave your comment below.