Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Managing public sector projects: What determines success or failure?

Over the last few years there have been several initiatives in the UK and elsewhere aimed at building the project management capacity of the public sector. In the UK, the Major Projects Authority was established in 2011 to provide independent assurance to government about the progress being made on governmental projects, and to support the development of a skilled cadre of governmental project leaders. This was followed by the establishment of a Major Projects Leadership Academy to develop leadership capability and build technical and commercial know-how. The latest version of the Civil Service Capabilities Plan (the 2014 ‘Annual Refresh’) confirms that ‘delivering successful projects and programmes’ is one of four key priorities for skills development in central government.

The backdrop to these initiatives is a well-established rhetoric concerning the likelihood of failure in public sector projects. The strength of this rhetoric can be accounted for partly by the greater public scrutiny to which governmental projects are subject and thus the high-profile nature of ‘failure’ when it occurs, and partly by a tendency in some circles to view public sector management as somehow inherently lacking.

Despite the possibly heightened tendency to look for and find failure in public sector projects, it is nevertheless valid to ask why projects fail, whether in the public or private sectors, and what could be done to increase the chances of success. This is an especially relevant question in the current climate of austerity, with extreme pressure being brought to bear on public spending and on achieving the maximum ‘value’ from resources.

How, then, to increase the likelihood that projects, whether in the public or private sector, will be successful?

The usual starting point, in answering this question, is to underline the importance of leadership, of technical and managerial skills, and of ensuring that projects are soundly based on established methodologies. This latter point can be seen in the Civil Service Capabilities Plan, which emphasises the importance of ‘drawing on project management disciplines and methodologies to achieve predictable, consistent, robust results’ so that the Government’s priorities can be delivered ‘right first time’. This emphasis on applying established methodology reflects the nature of the professional discipline of project management, which emphasises a rational, technocratic and managerial approach in which an established ‘Body of Knowledge’, representing established good practice and applicable to any project, is to be consistently applied.

This technical approach to project management, founded on a linear process for initiating, planning, executing and closing a project, provides a valuable foundation for building project success, but it only takes us so far in understanding why projects go off the rails.

A wider perspective, and some important clues about project failure, are offered by a recent study (Haji-Kazemi et al 2015) which focuses on understanding what happens when early warning signs about a project’s progress are identified. Such signs, whatever source they rise from, should be important triggers that feed into project scrutiny and, if necessary, into corrective action which in turn should help to increase the chances of project success. In practice, however, early warning signs are frequently neglected or misinterpreted. The reasons for this, as Haji-Kazemi et al discuss, are variously organisational, psychological and political. 

Organisationally, choices have to be made about what kind of project information to monitor. Decisions made at this stage can crucially affect what information gets through. Psychological factors include a well-established tendency in project management towards ‘optimism’ bias (Flyvbjerg 2009), defined as a tendency to be overly positive about the outcomes that are likely to arise from planned actions. This creates an inherent bias towards over-estimating benefits and under-estimating time, cost and risk. A further psychological tendency that can contribute to a neglect of warning signs is a tendency towards ‘normalisation of deviancy’ as problems become familiar and so begin to be accepted as part of the norm, creating ‘a perfect petri dish environment for corporate (or project) misbehaviour’ (Pinto 2013: 377). Political factors, reflected in the role that power plays, affect what type of information is allowed to influence decision-making. Taken together, these organisational, psychological and political factors can have a considerable influence on the extent to which early warning signs are detected and acted on, and thus on project success. Significantly, Haji-Kazemi et al identify that the likelihood of these factors causing distortions increases as project complexity grows. Although their work was focused on the private sector, this is a highly relevant finding for the public sector project manager, as public service projects tend to be characterised by multiple objectives and multiple stakeholders – both of which go hand in hand with a large dose of complexity.

What does this information mean, then, for project management and for governmental projects in particular?

First, there is nothing in these findings that detracts from the importance for project success of managerial capacity, technical know-how and skilled leadership. All these components of sound project management need to be brought to bear on ensuring that the barriers to recognising and acting on early warning signs are minimised. We also need to recognise, though, the importance and significance of the organisational, psychological and political factors that play into project management. While project management disciplines and methodologies provide a foundation for identifying early warning signs, they do not of themselves guarantee that these signs will be acted on. Studies by Haji-Kazemi, Pinto and others indicate that the key components in this respect go much wider than the project manager or leader, and include the nature of the organisation’s culture (especially an openness to discussion and a willingness to learn), the use of external scrutiny to provide for objective assessment that is freed from internal bias, and an approach to governance that encourages and rewards reflection and transparency.

These findings about why early warning signs may be neglected suggest that organisations need to frame the ‘problem’ of project management failure more broadly. While accepting that project management skills and capacity are part of the answer to this problem, organisations also need to understand the deeper roots of project failure, and to develop their corporate capacity for openness, learning, external scrutiny and effective governance. Otherwise, no amount of training for project managers and leaders will increase the chances of project success.


Flyvbjerg, B., Garbuio, M. and Lovallo, D. (2009). Delusion and deception in large infrastructure projects: two models for explaining and preventing executive disaster, California Management Review, Vol 51 (2), pp. 170–193.

Haji-Kazemi, S., Andersen, B. and Klakegg, O. J. (2015). Barriers against effective responses to early warning signs in projects, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 33 (5), pp. 1068-1083.

Pinto, J.K. (2013). Project management, governance and the normalisation of deviancy, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 32 (3), pp. 376-387.

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