In the past 30 years the Northern Ireland Civil Service has seen an increased focus on delivering change and less on “business as usual” activity.
This demand for improved public services has changed the way these services are delivered and that requires a much more robust approach to programmes and projects.
In the past decade, the greater adoption of best practice frameworks - such as PRINCE2®, MSP® and, more recently PRINCE2 Agile® - has allowed projects and programmes to develop better corporate governance and protection of public finances. With the complex approval mechanisms affecting how Government spends money on its own change programmes, best practice has helped ensure the right programmes and projects are taken forward.
Using the OGC Gateway Review approach - a “peer review”, in which independent practitioners from outside the programme/project use their experience and expertise to examine the progress and likelihood of successful delivery of the programme or project - any government-funded project needs to engage with our team to establish the need for reviews at key stages of its lifecycle, aimed at ensuring its successful delivery. Over time, projects have become used to external scrutiny; Project Managers and Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) understand the process and how it brings their work into sharper focus. And it adds value, with skilled peers from within or without the programme or project reviewing and helping progress.
Distinguishing a change initiative
Once upon a time, changes to systems were often mopped up within business as usual activity when they could - and perhaps should - have been managed as projects. It really comes down to the level of change: when planning to do something different, start with the end in mind - does it constitute fundamental change? What is the scale and complexity of the change?
But not every change initiative is automatically a project. There is a tendency for people to be more familiar with a project management method like PRINCE2 and automatically manage change as a project. However, they can soon realize the change has too broad a scope and too long a timeframe and needs to be managed differently. Similarly, people can mistakenly use programme management for what is really a project.
An SRO needs to decide what is a programme or project; they should be experienced enough to know what they’re delivering and seek early engagement on the best approach to take it forward. For example, PRINCE2 can be used to manage projects up to what’s known as a “daunting project” (something with complex and interdependent work streams and with additional layers of governance), which could be treated as a programme.
Managing projects and programmes
In managing projects, we find that project teams - and Project Managers - can be relatively inexperienced - so need training and bespoke, ad-hoc advice during the process. This emphasizes the need for appropriate governance, knowing that the project manager has authority to work within tolerances and making it clear there is responsibility for governance that feeds into the corporate strategy.
This means spending more time and effort with new Project Managers who, quite often, don’t see the high level outline of what will be delivered or who will be involved. Through the Gateway Process - which gets our team involved in projects valued at £500,000 or more – we can provide assistance to many projects. And this is not an audit of what’s been done already, but looks forward at how they can take the project to the point of readiness of service. At the very least, it means having a controlled start, middle and end to achieve a consistent flow through a project. And, we work with project teams on delivering benefits and post-project evaluation – something often overlooked when Project Managers move on to their next job.
We take a similar approach to managing programmes, just at a higher level. And while programmes need to translate strategy into operations, it also means looking for good project management structures - taking reassurance from the fact that programmes have component projects with correct roles and responsibilities, plus processes for escalating problems and risks.
Ultimately, with projects and programmes, organizations and their managers need to think carefully about the level of detail needed to manage what they’re doing: don’t create a cottage industry of detail where it’s not necessary. And, if spending public money, the auditability of change programmes is vital: in the public sector you will be held to account for how well projects delivered success.
Above all, take the methods and tailor them. PRINCE2 provides a robust mechanism for project management that is scalable. You just need to ask how much of each technique you really need.