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How lack of planning hurts government projects

Brian Franklin
July 8, 2014

Continuing requirements for efficiency dividends in the Australian Public Service (and other similarly orientated entities) can only be achieved through a limited number of business streams:

  1. A realignment of priorities and rationalisation in the government programs undertaken, a most unlikely option with a new government setting the framework for an extended tenure;
  2. A reduction in the number of personnel available to execute government business; the most immediate and cost effective with the consequence of increased elevation of managerial responsibilities and the virtual elimination of service roles; and
  3. The elimination of resource waste through more efficient delivery mechanism in the planning and implementation of government policy initiatives.

As a consequence, three business factors will dominate the delivery of Australian Government business over the next 3-6 years:

  1. Increased demands upon human capital through continuing efficiency dividends;
  2. Increased reliance by public service managers on outsourced policy implementation delivery, the cost of which will be a component of the project planning and implementation costs; and
  3. Increased focus on benefits outcomes as a result of the implementation of such government policy.

Increased efficiency and a reduced public service workforce call for the old adage, ‘work smarter not harder’, to be applied. This means the elimination of the extraneous, the irrelevant and, most importantly, doing it once correctly without rework created as a consequence of errors, misjudgements, misconceived resource requirements, inappropriate skills application and untested timeframes and the realisation that, if pre-determined timeframes established months or years before the actual project is planned are immutable then the corollary is the allocation of appropriate resources.

Such efficiency demands the engagement of true sponsors in the project environment who will actually guide the project with unfailing focus on the business/community benefits.

Efficiency demands resources

It is a matter of some concern, however, that we are unable to apply adequate time to well-measured planning and yet the community (government) can always find the additional resources, money and time to accommodate project overruns that are a consequence of truncated planning processes which invariably distort the business case, whatever the primary drivers.

One of the inconsistencies in all environments is the consistent belief that we can accomplish our visions of the future without applying any consistent rigour to how we get there.

The project environment is littered with case studies of project over time and over budget, of lessons learnt which are never, it seems, ever learnt organisationally because subsequent projects are invariably conceived, planned and execution with different stakeholders and project personnel.

Reports litter the project environment—most so detailed or dated so as to fail in conveying meaningful and essential information to key executive and management stakeholders to enable reasoned judgements as to whether interventions are necessary. Such reporting fails to engage key stakeholders and are filed for future reference should the project or enterprise fail.

Executive managers seek simple and straightforward consistency in reporting which confirm that the planned and agreed intentions are being achieved. This calls for the intended business outcomes to be regularly reviewed and reassured so that the project business intent remains valid, in terms of the financial, business or social benefit intended.

This will be achieved by effective early planning, sponsor engagement and open communications. ICT programs alone, however aided by any of the 285+ propriety and open source project software programs and Enterprise Program Management Systems available in the marketplace, is not enough.

Suggested solution

In the final analysis, success is dependent upon five primary factors:

  1. An objective that is fully understood and agreed by the key managers and stakeholders thus enabling the correct deliverables to be determined;
  2. A communications strategy which is clearly articulated and involves all key stakeholders;
  3. A risk evaluation with commitment to mitigation strategies and review on a consistent basis, and a project plan that incorporates those mitigation strategies;
  4. A reporting process which captures the key control mechanisms and provides valid timely advice to sponsors and executive managers.
  5. The application of appropriately skilled and competent people to the initiative.

If not, expect continued failure. Until the commitment to the business requirements and sponsorship is in equilibrium with the project planning and execution process, outcomes will continue to be problematic and the community will continue to meet the cost of the excesses of project delivery inadequacies and failure of the original intent.

What, then, is the implication for the program and project management community? I suggest that the real test is whether it is prepared to hold firm on a commitment to the principles of sound program and project management and emphasise that the ownership of, and responsibility for, successful project outcomes is determined in the planning phases by the decisions of the business manager and sponsor and not necessarily the project manager.

Brian Franklin
Brian Franklin is a Canberra-based consultant focused on business improvement through management by projects. He draws on national and international construction, infrastructure and event project experiences.
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