Select committee highlights important role of major projects in delivering public benefits

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has published an interim report examining the performance of the government in managing major projects. ICE provided written and oral evidence to the committee to help inform its inquiry and report. Here we take a look at its key conclusions.

Crossrail is a recent high-profile example of a major infrastructure project that
Crossrail is a recent high-profile example of a major infrastructure project that's faced delays and overspend.
  • Updated: 05 November, 2019
  • Author: Ben Goodwin, ICE Lead Policy Manager

The PACAC's inquiry was initiated against the backdrop of delays and overspends to the delivery of a number of major infrastructure projects, with Crossrail serving as a recent high-profile example in this context.

Its purpose was to examine why such overruns occur and to explore what some of the solutions could be to prevent this from happening on other projects in the future.

Key takeaways

The committee acknowledge upfront that further work is required in order to establish the long-term interventions that can improve many of the processes involved in major project delivery. As such, its report has been published as an interim, with a clear call for a successor committee to continue its work.

Nevertheless, the narrative upon which the report is built is very clear. That is to say that the basis for major government projects (including the delivery of new and upgraded infrastructure) is, and should always be, to deliver benefits to the public.

In this respect there is justifiable criticism of approaches whereby the key metric for success is orientated solely around lowest capital cost.

The report also recognises that political pressures can sometimes force decisions around when and at what cost to initiate major projects and that this can lead to sub-optimal outcomes. Particularly, if this is at the expense of robust pre-commencement work having been undertaken.

These are concerns that ICE certainly shares.

Procurement processes associated with all major infrastructure projects should be more thorough in their evaluation of the economic, social and environmental outcomes that are being sought.

They must also be given the necessary time in order for them to be carried out effectively. Consistently prioritising cost and headlines will continue to create challenges in delivery.

There is some commentary offered on civil service capability and project team churn rates, but in both cases the committee doesn't offer any definitive recommendations as to how to strengthen the former and reduce the latter.

Working collaboratively

Transactional supply chain relationships often mean that risk is inequitably apportioned at the beginning of projects, leading to difficulty and delay further down the line.

Collaborative approaches to major project delivery can help to overcome much of this, which is why it's pleasing to see the committee recognising Project 13 as an initiative with promise (albeit one that's in its early stages).

By way of background for any newcomers reading this blog, Project 13 is an industry-led programme that puts forward a collaborative business model for improving productivity in infrastructure delivery and prioritisng whole-life project outcomes.

It was the basis of the contributions that Miles Ashley made when he appeared in front of the committee on behalf of the ICE during the latter stages of its inquiry.

Project 13 is being driven forward by the Infrastructure Client Group and is currently being trialled by a number of the UK’s largest infrastructure owners. It's also a central feature of ICE’s campaign for a joined-up National Infrastructure Strategy.

After the dust has settled

Following the general election and the appointment of new select committees, ICE would encourage the successor to PACAC to continue with this work, picking up where this report has left off.

Critical for the infrastructure sector is that any final report contains actionable recommendations for government on addressing major project delivery challenges.

In a policy paper published earlier this year we set out a number of ideas that would help form the basis of any such recommendations, including more comprehensive approaches to project scoping and cost estimating, alongside the mandatory application of the Government Commercial Function’s Outsourcing Playbook by publicly owned infrastructure organisations.

The paper can be found here.

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