Public sector cuts: Developing project managers to help turn adversity into opportunity

Last time modernisation and cuts were attempted in public services, creation of capability in change management and delivery were overlooked.  Can we re-frame this adversity as an opportunity to create the competence to do things differently?

Have we been here before ?
When Tony Blair launched the Modernising Government and e-Government initiatives early in the last decade there was a clear vision of leveraging IT for public benefit.  Huge sums of money were thrown at the problem and lots of IT assets were created across all the local authorities and government agencies in theUK.  These new systems such as CRM have been of some benefit, but the vision of shared services and Public Private Partnerships failed to gain momentum and ran aground on the rocks of inertia and local political resistance.  As an example, the ‘Mrs Barker project’, a central government funded initiative to look at how to join up services across the eight borough, county and district councils across Northamptonshire to make services seamless and efficient, failed to realise any significant shared services or tangible benefit for ‘Mrs Barker’, and negligible savings to the public purse.

Saving our purse
At that time the ‘Gershon Efficiency targets’ were only 3%, of which only half had to be cashable, ie result in tangible savings.  In practice, these were easily achieved through minor tweaks to procurement.  Now we have cuts of around the 30% mark, which is at a psychological level to trigger changes in behaviour – you cannot continue to do things as you have done before but a bit more efficiently, but must instead look at what you need to do and new ways of doing it.  As Cameron said, ‘Ask: Does it need to be done at all, and if so, do we need to be the ones doing it ?’.  Since then, a spate of initiatives for shared services have been announced, including ground breaking collaborations across London boroughs such as Westminster, Kensington and Fulham.  Three other London Boroughs, Sutton, Merton, andKingston, have announced shared outsourcing of back office functions.  Multi-agency Public Sector Networks such as those inWales,Hampshire,KentandDevonare being announced most months.  In fact, the New Local Government Network (NLGN) has called for a shift in mindset to the presumption that services will be shared rather than stand-alone.  Coming full circle, most of the local authorities in Northamptonshire have now joined the Local Economic Partnership for SE Midlands (thoughNorthamptonCounty, former PPP procurement partner of MKC at the centre of the zone, has currently opted out of that partnership).  Outsourcing companies are buoyant on the expectation that ‘back office’ processing will again start to migrate to outsourced shared service centres.

Creating capability
So all is now well.  Or is it ?  One of the barriers to delivery of the twenty or so core projects in the previous modernising government agenda was revealed late in the day to be a lack of capability in delivery and change management across the public sector, and two new national initiatives were announced to address these capability and capacity gaps.  Big improvements have been made, with recognition of these capabilities within the public sector and investment in minimum training levels.   Communities of Practice (CoPs) for project management have become established, including the award winning community springing out of the ‘Capital Ambition’ programme across local authorities in London, which has gone on to embrace wider public sector bodies.  Central government agencies such as DWP under Ian Anderson and HMRC under Paul Hirst have also set up Communities of Practice and Centres of Excellence.  As said by Bob Assirati, former Director of the Major Projects Authority within the Efficiency and Reform Group, ‘Method is important, but knowing how to use it is even more so’.  Hence, several central government bodies have even moved on from basic training in process to adopt competency frameworks such as that promoted by the Association for Project Management, and have recently (jointly) procured mentoring services for their senior project sponsors.

From knowledge to competence
But what are the competences that we need to develop in order to face these evolved challenges ?  In the past decade the challenge addressed was to achieve basic organisational competence in governance and process in order to deliver key assets through defined projects.  Going forward, we will need to move from a focus on project based assets to business outcomes delivered through multi-disciplinary, multi-agency, programmes.  A new breed of project professionals will need to demonstrate much higher levels of emotional intelligence as they surf the edge of chaos around these multiple stakeholder programmes and start to deliver benefits in a timely manner across multiple clients.  They will have to exhibit behaviours of leadership rather than project administration and supervision.  As Christine Connelly, CIO of the NHS, said at a recent BCS event, ‘When I started out my career I was employed for what I knew. As knowledge lost its currency I was valued for my skills. Today, people will be sought for the behaviours they exhibit’.

Behaviours
So, behaviours are key.  Unfortunately, most training courses for project management are still method based, with many delivered impersonally via Computer Based Training.  The APM has recently launched a competence based qualification, ‘The Registered Project Professional’, at a significantly higher level of professionalism equivalent to chartered status.  Introduction of this competence based qualification has been widely supported by corporates, major government departments and the then OGC.

Mind the skill gap
David Clarke MBE, CEO of the BCS, was amongst the first to recognise the role of the professional bodies in addressing the industry skill gap, and the CIO of HMRC, Phil Pavitt, has mandated professional development and qualifications across their IT function.  He has since gone on to take the role of Director General for Transformation across HMRC – perhaps he will make a similar mandate for project management and change functions ?

Learning new skills
But this is assessment rather than training.  Some say that behaviours, soft skills and leadership cannot be taught.  I agree that they cannot be taught, but they can be learned, though it is certainly more challenging than teaching process and method.  I was commissioned by the BCS to write the book ‘NLP for Project Managers: Make things happen with neuro-linguistic programming’.  Although I am an NLP master practitioner and regular speaker on the topic, my USP is that I have been actively using such tools to enhance soft skills in project management for nearly twenty years.  Interest in the topic has been huge since publication of the book in March this year, with endorsement by the professional bodies and senior figures in most industry sectors as well as local and central government.  As part of BCS’s SpringSchoolfor Project Managers, workshops on NLP for PM were very popular.  After all, where else can technical project managers learn to reframe, such as turning government cuts into opportunity for citizens, learn to understand multiple maps of the world and accommodate complex stakeholder groups, develop flexibility of behaviours and approach, and develop resilience without becoming callous ?

NLP for Project Managers
When I was scoping the book, I went around heads of capability of several organisations, recruitment agencies, and senior PMs and asked them ‘If I had a magic wand and could give your PMs any skill or competence that would make them immediately more effective, what would it be ?’  The most common response was not process based requirements such as ‘produce better risk registers’, but ‘greater self awareness’.  While this does not fit into any of the existing competence frameworks for PM or IT, Socrates’ concept of ‘know thyself’ is core to standard emotional intelligence frameworks.  Without self-awareness we have little chance of achieving flexibility in our behaviours to match context and desired outcome.  Similarly, though many engaged had a desire to ‘influence others’, this is futile without first developing skills and behaviours around social awareness, such as listening and observation skills, or as Peter Drucker called it ‘Being able to hear what isn’t being said’.  Hence, the book takes us through the journey of finding out about ourselves, developing self control and flexible behaviour, and then skills for social awareness, before finally looking at some of the behaviours around influencing others from a position of being able to achieve win-win accommodations.  Without developing this level of skill and being flexible in behaviours, maybe our next generation of public sector programmes and shared services will also founder.

‘To be effective, project managers must learn the language of the boardroom’,Neville Bain, Chairman of theInstitute of Directors

(This article first appeared in Government Technology Magazine in 2011)