Public servants have the unenviable task of coming up with new policy and project ideas and interpreting the agenda, ideas and commitments of their elected masters. All to be delivered with time and resource pressures both in absolute terms and in a competitive environment, it is no wonder that so many projects fail – or simply fail to launch.
Through our observation of many years of working with government, both on the inside and externally, there are some key warning signs that should form the basis of any project or reform prior to kick off – and a way to consider the less qualitative aspects in play. Following is our Top 5 reasons public sector projects fail.
1. Wrong Timing
Often good ideas come at the wrong time. Apart from hard dates and known decision gateways such as the Budget process which provide limits on when decisions can be made (or provide an excuse to delay a decision), other factors such as the election cycle or even immediate political instability or machinery of government changes may cast a shadow over the project.
We have seen solid, well thought through projects slam hard against such timing constraints and instead of holding back for a more amenable time, they were still pursued – the crash or crash through approach. As a result, the project still did not proceed and the hearts and minds of decision makers and the opportunity was lost.
2. No Political Buy In
No matter how rudimentary or operational a project may appear, political buy in must be a critical consideration. Even business as usual projects or reforms for a departmental officer may have implications at the political level that elected officials are managing. Failing to ensure the project has appropriate visibility at the political level through ministerial staff engagement elevates the chance of delay or rejection. Even if we think our project is boring or run of the mill, assume it should receive attention at the political level - even just to provide them the confidence there is nothing to worry about.
We might not need elected officials to drive our project – but we certainly don’t want rejection because we haven’t kept them in the loop the whole way through.
3. Poor Communications
When it comes to securing support, you simply cannot communicate too much. Deeply understanding our decision makers, influencers and advocates and undertaking regular and effective communication is fundamental. There is a need to both understand their perspective and to minimise the unknowns and while this both obvious and critical it can be difficult to achieve. Taking a ‘no surprises’ approach to every aspect of the project will resolve the majority of communications problems.
Too many times we have seen projects derailed by a range of misaligned assumptions that were not reflective of an impacted stakeholder’s views or simply when stakeholders dug their heels in because they were not involved early enough in the process.
4. Misunderstanding of Risk
The reality of most public sector projects and reforms is that they are focussed on managing downside risk – even ‘positive’ reforms to do something new and shiny have a heavy focus on addressing a problem or issue. This elevates risk to the delivery of the project– if we are trying to solve a problem, the stakes if we get it wrong are higher.
Hence, whilst it is rational to consider risk to the project in terms of internal factors such as project inputs or the building blocks of the reform (think resources, personnel availability and skill, parliamentary capacity) the real risks are external factors that can derail the project such as evolving political issues, change of stakeholder positions or major economic events.
As such, preparing for the impact of such external risks (as much as such risk can be managed) is as critical as any assessment of internal project risk.
5. Absent advocates
While understanding who benefits from the project outcomes and why is a fundamental part of planning for a new project, ensuring these ‘stakeholders’ become ‘advocates’ is often overlooked. This does not mean non-government actors or other third parties should be mobilised or ‘lobby’ for the project but we must deeply understand their views and perceptions – and to make sure if our decision makers seek them out, our advocates are informed and supportive of the project.
This must be balanced against confidentiality and other appropriate constraints but ensuring project advocates are reinforcing the benefits of the reforms as much as possible significantly increases the chances of success.
There is no one path to the sunlit uplands of public sector project success but testing a project against these five factors will provide some measure to reduce project failure – and provide early warning signs when things are off the rails.
FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change
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