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Major project leaders to come from Whitehall under £6.7m academy

The government will train project leaders to come from within Whitehall as it attempts to grapple with a portfolio of 206 projects worth more than £400 billion of which less than half are performing on time and on budget.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude today unveiled plans for a new £6.7 million Major Projects Leadership Academy as the government looks to cut reliance on employing consultants to lead major schemes.

The government is currently presiding over more than 1,800m projects of which 206 worth more than £400bn are being managed by the Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority.

Initial government findings have revealed just 45 per cent are running on-time and on-budget despite the government having saved £147m since its launch in 2010 through reductions in costs and scrapping wasteful projects.

MPA executive director David Pitchford said he wanted to see that percentage double over the next five years, and the MPA is expected to report on where the value is being lost in its annual report due around May.

A total of around 250-350 civil servants will undergo training in the new academy to be run with Oxford’s Saïd Business School and Deloitte, who fended off competition from 90 other bidders to become partners under Whitehall’s quickest-ever procurement time of 51 days.

The academy will be funded by Treasury for the first year and by individual departments after that with two members of staff set to be trained from each department annually.

Initial plans are that civil servants who undergo training will spend time with public and private projects to learn from existing expertise and the government could then extend the training programme to look at training in procurement.

The MPA is also currently assessing the capability of each department within Whitehall to carry out major projects efficiently.

Head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake said there were areas the government “can and must improve on” and that the new academy was “consciously Whitehall-wide” so every department would be expected to participate.

He added that consultants “recognise that they have been in a green paddock for a long time and have recognised that the day is gone where government will simply hand over big projects to be delivered”.

MPA executive director David Pitchford:

“Over the last 25 years, leadership and capability has been outsourced. This has led to a spiral where there is no leadership within Whitehall so government goes and buys it from consultancies who lead it in areas they want and with products they want to use and they walk away from the projects with the knowledge gained from them.

“This is about trying to teach people if you are getting into difficulty - what is the world-class approach to recovery?”

The government said the new academy will “build the skills of senior project leaders across government to deliver complex project” and added that in future no one will be able to lead a major government project without completing the academy.

Senior leaders working on projects including the Olympics and High Speed Two will be among the first to benefit from the academy, while civil servants working on the Green Investment Bank, Electricity Market Reform Programme and Crossrail will also be among those first in line.

Mr Maude said: “When it comes to major projects, this government means business. Taxpayers need to know that major projects will be delivered on time and to budget. We do have impressive expertise in the public sector at the moment, but we want to take a long term view and build this within Whitehall.

“Crucially, this will relinquish taxpayers from having to foot the bill for external consultancy to deliver the projects and services the country needs.”

He added: “This is an important step in our plans to reform the Civil Service – we want to build world-class project leadership skills within government. Starting with our current leaders, we will develop a generation of professionals that are internationally recognised for their skill and expertise.”

Mr Pitchford said: “Within the next three-to-five years we want an alumni of up to 350 people who will be highly trained, exposed to world-class trends and challenged significantly on how to become better leaders.”

About the Major Projects Leadership Academy:

The full academy programme will start in October 2012. Two groups of approximately 25 people each will enter the academy every year.

Participants can expect the following:

A one year formal academy programme covering three primary themes: Major Project Leadership (50 per cent), Technical Understanding of Major Project Delivery (25 per cent) and Commercial Capability (25 per cent).

Assessment of relevant competences before starting the programme, to identify individual learning priorities for the year.

Three residential modules of five days each, interspersed with more tailored learning such as mentoring/coaching if appropriate to address learning priorities.

Teaching and learning that is 60 per cent practical and 40 per cent theoretical/academic to include face to face exposure and access to world-class project leaders.

Competence assessment at the beginning and end of the academic programme, resulting in a personal development plan identifying learning priorities for the following two years.

Participants will be required to undertake a series of complex assignments and meet a challenging level of assessment. Mere attendance does not guarantee successful completion of the programme.

Membership of the academy business partner’s alumni network for at least five years, enabling interaction with private and public sector peers, academics and business leaders, as part of continuous professional development.

Membership of the MPA’s support network for leaders of major projects in government.

Involvement in building the government’s cadre of major project leaders, for example mentoring future academy cohorts and alumni.

Saïd Business School academy director Dr Paul Chapman said: “As you would expect from Oxford, we take an intellectually rigorous approach to addressing the three primary themes of the academy: Major Project Leadership, Technical Understanding of Major Project Delivery and Commercial Capability, and we will also focus on the practical skills necessary to develop senior practitioners that can deliver very large and complex projects on time and on budget. 

“For example, we will expose participants to the ideas, experiences and best practice from world-class major project leaders and academics.  This means we will further enhance and build the skills of the already capable project leaders that enrol on the academy and ensure the programme remains relevant to them and the wider Civil Service.”

The government is anxious to better-train staff to recognise when projects are going wrong and to be able to counteract that through their leadership approaches and avoid projects being terminated.

Major projects are defined as any government project that is large and complex enough to require Treasury sign-off for funding.

The Cabinet Office drew on international experience from both the public and private sectors in creating the programme, and found that while some international governments have leadership certifications for certain areas, the UK government will be the first to introduce this sort of mandatory senior training across its entire major project portfolio.

Readers' comments (1)

  • The Government has been far too reliant on external consultants for far too long, who have limited loyalty to the department they work for. It is good to see that they have finally seen the cost-effectiveness of investing in their own people to manage these projects.
    My only concern is are the right people getting the training, or will this be an example of the Civil Service providing names to fill slots, only time will tell?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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