As the UK local government faces the major challenges arising from budget constraint coupled with ongoing demand for higher quality delivery, experienced OGC Gateway Reviewer Duncan Sharrocks looks at the history of the review process and why reviews could help authorities face the changes they see ahead.

In April 2011 the UK Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the development of the Typhoon jet fighter as flawed.  So the aircraft and its crews are not ready for operational deployment over Libya with the National Audit Office (NAO) criticising the Ministry of Defence for bad planning and over-optimism which led to a 75% increase in cost.

The things that could go wrong with programmes are a major threat to the officials, officers and politicians behind reforms.  This has been seen time and time again.  In June 1999 Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, in a Commons debate on the passports backlog, was forced to apologise “to all those who have been inconvenienced by the inadequate standard of service and especially to those whose holidays or business trips have been disrupted or cancelled”.

So why is that what seem to be well-laid plans go awry?  There seem to be two main reasons:

  • Optimism bias – the tendency to overlook potential problems or, even worse, when they are spotted, play down the scale and significance of their impacts, and
  • Limited experience in the programme/ project team of programme management skills
  • Knowledge of the range of solutions that might be explored, and
  • The market response to what is going to be on offer

These sorts of issues aren’t unique to the public sector.  But the scale is.  There are very few enterprises that employ as many people as even a modest sized public sector organisation.  And so when the public sector brings in, say, a new computer system, it will often be larger and more complex than anything ever encountered by the private sector.

The public and private sector have had a lot to learn from each other about major change and procurement.  The sharing of experience between the public and private sectors was given a major boost when Peter Gershon (who was knighted in 2004), from Marconi, was appointed as the Office of Government Commerce’s (OGC) first chief executive.  He had seen how major change could go wrong in a successful profit-making business.  As part of Gershon’s role in reforming government procurement he instigated the Gateway Review process for major programmes and projects.  OGC have codified this and best practices for procurement and programme & project management for both the public and private sector to use.

Central government’s experience has been high profile.  In the early years they sought private sector support and now have learnt largely to stand on their own feet.  They have learnt that they need to adapt the review process to the topic at hand and that there will still be innovative and non-repeatable programmes/ projects in central government.  Some support will still be necessary from time to time, and programmes, as the PAC and NAO attest, can still go wrong.

Local government currently faces huge budget and delivery challenges.  These come from central government cost reductions, elector’s demands, and politicians’ aspirations.

To meet these tough challenges, local authorities need to acquire experience quickly and learn the tricks of the trade, and avoid the headline grabbing articles aimed at some central government programmes.  The challenge is similar, that local authorities need to deliver innovative or non-repeatable change programmes, for a demanding electorate and understandably impatient councillors, with reduced budgets.

Local government needs to learn quickly as it revamps service delivery or it could face the well-publicised difficulties that, in some cases, central government did.  The Gateway Review process has been used in the past by local authorities, but now the pressure is on for both excellence in delivery, and review.  Yes:  reviewers need to up their game, too.

The OGC Gateway Review process is trademarked, and OGC provide extensive guidance on how it should be used.  But this is only a starting point, and reviewers need to use a wide variety of skills and sympathetic experience to ensure that their clients get the most out of reviews.

And from the client side: research, and experience, shows that authorities are best to get reviewers in at the start, and before the programme or project has even been formally started.  Then engage with reviewers at a senior level; be open with them; utilise their wide-based experience; listen to what they say and have a discussion about what you want from the review and then the conclusions and report.

I’ve recently been working with the City of Edinburgh Council on a major change programme. The Alternative Business Model Programme (ABM) aims to establish new service delivery partnerships for a range of council functions that will be procured through competitive dialogue.  This is a complex and sensitive process, with services over ten years valued at £1.2bn.

Over the past year I have led three so-called Gate 0 programme-level reviews.  These look at the direction and planned outcomes of a programme, and are timed so to run ahead of method decision points and any of the major purchase milestones.  The council have seen the value of the reviews, and have asked us to review each of the three projects that make up the programme.

So why and how have these reviews helped?  Andrew Unsworth, the Council’s officer responsible for the programme explains:

  “Major change programmes are a unique assignment within any organisation.  They draw on skills and experience which are not generally part of the mainstream operations of either a large local authority or government department.

“The Gateway Review process provides a structured and evidence based approach to continually test your strategy and plans.  It ensures the issues and concerns of all stakeholders are considered and that the programme is not driven by a stubborn belief in a preferred solution but systematic and logical review.

“Using the Gateway Review process throughout the programme has helped us to secure independent critical thinking from experienced professionals and provided advice, learning and support to our team in terms of strategic thinking and practical implementation.”

One of the reasons we were chosen to conduct the reviews was that we have no vested or commercial interest in the outcome of the process, whether it’s about the procurement itself or the wider change management issues that major programmes also always create.

But when choosing a review team, look at their track record.  A blend of experience is best.  Most reviewers have either a consulting pedigree, or they are former senior civil servants.  I’m in the former category, and I think all reviewers would recognise the pros and cons that their own experience brings to bear.  The other part of that track record is the team’s experience of conducting reviews.  Because, if nothing else, I hope this article shows that producing a good review outcome requires skills beyond the domain knowledge of most management consultants, senior civil servants and officers.

The bottom line, though, is that a Gateway Review that adds true value is predicated on a partnership between the review team and the officials or officers responsible for the programme.

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