Mega Projects

How The UK’s Handling Of The Pandemic Made Sages Of Project Managers

Boris Johnson

On paper, at least, HM Government knows better than most how to run complex, multi-year, multi-billion projects and programmes. In fact, there is a Gov.uk site devoted to the topic.

But Government here means the organisation of government, the standing, professional civil service. Government that is the political entity led by a Prime Minister made up of ministers assigned to dozens of portfolios is a wholly different beast.

Judging from its performance handling the COVID-19 pandemic I would argue it could have performed a whole lot better if it had thought and acted like project managers (which I use here to cover Programme Managers, Project Directors etc) and faced the same kinds of demands from sponsors and stakeholders that we who do the job regard as business as usual.

Every day I hear statements from ministers which prick my programme manager’s antennae and give me premonitions of issues in the middle distance that prompt despair and the exclamation “they wouldn’t get away with that if they did my job”.

Few SRO’s, stakeholders, shareholders or sponsors would accept the failures, waste, naïvety, deficient planning, easy excuses and equivocations that we daily hear uttered by ministers so here are some thoughts on how project management techniques, principles and methodologies might have helped Boris and gang delivered better.

Strong Project Organisations embrace Accountability

Whether you are a disciple of Scrum, MSP, PRINCE2 or any other mature delivery methodology, defining and getting the Organisation right in the early days of projects and programmes is a high priority.

But if we look at the organisation of the UK pandemic programme, it is extremely hard to make sense of it in project terms.

On a near daily basis, Boris Johnson puts himself at the vanguard of Government efforts to conquer the pandemic. But despite his protestations to the contrary, his evasions, signature bluster, and refusal to acknowledge mistakes are the unmistakable hallmarks of a lack of accountability.

However, ministers are very happy to associate themselves with an trumpet any success in the campaign such as the atypically “world-beating” vaccine rollout which is actually the success of  a highly developed NHS designed over decades to rise to precisely this challenge. So failures are always either someone else’s fault (“we followed the science”) or came out of the blue (eg ‘foreign’ Covid variants).

When Boris Johnson was asked at the end of January to explain why the UK has the highest Coronavirus rate as a percentage of population, he offered no coherent explanation, indeed, displayed remarkably little curiosity in the matter.

I only wish my job allowed me to feel I could shrug off such a damning metric with such apparent indifference.

The aforementioned Government website helpfully details the role of Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) as follows:

…. ultimately accountable for a programme or project meeting its objectives, delivering the projected outcomes and realising the required benefits. He or she is the owner of the business case and accountable for all aspects of governance. 

Given his performance at the despatch box and in tv interviews, it’s hard to view the PM as fulfilling any of these functions which points to the first major way in which programme management has something to teach politicians.

In our adversarial parliamentary system, an admission of failure grudgingly issues from a ministerial mouth only when the political Teflon has been worn away from over-use; different and perhaps better ways of doing things suggested by the Opposition are dismissed by default and Lessons Learnt are postponed to an unspecified and usually politically convenient future.

None of these practices is acceptable in the world of projects because they undermine principles of accountability and the push for continuous improvement.

An SRO, Programme Director or even a lowly project manager who does any of these things will be distrusted, ruthlessly grilled in governance meetings and ultimately can expect stakeholder retribution.

And whilst we may quail at the pressure, the almost Darwinian process ensures focus is on delivery rather than activity.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Boris should act less like a PM and more as a pm but just as the distinction between accountability and responsibility, when detailed in a RACI, sharpens roles, so I believe that a Pandemic Programme Minister would have simplified divided loyalties.

Free from the distractions of a departmental portfolio, this role would focus explicitly on directing all the non-BAU elements of the anti-pandemic effort, using proven programme and project management techniques.

The terms of reference for the PPM would define a role free of the burden to play party politics and the habit of deflecting, defending and denying the obvious; characterised by candour and humility, engagement with the detail and a hardcoded commitment to real-time continuous improvement.

The role would need someone who understood that failing fast was positive and learning and adapting was a virtuous process, not a shameful embarrassment; someone about whom, Boris could say to Robert Peston, s/he is looking into such and such an uncomfortablee metric and will have an interim lessons learnt report on my desk next week.

To be honest, I don’t know many amongst the current generation of lacklustre political lightweights who has the broad shoulders or the propensity for the mother of all political pivots to take on such a role and do the job that so many of us undertake.

My straw-man would be Jeremy Hunt. The former, but longest-serving, Health Secretary not only gets how the NHS works (what we would call a Subject Matter Expert) but also built up a successful company marrying technology and learning which would have brought him into very close contact with IT ways of doing things.

Jeremy is not ever going to be PM after his 2019 bid for the Tory leadership  and has already achieved the highest appointment for an MP outside of Government by chairing the Health Select Committee so you might say that he had lots to offer and little to lose.

Lessons Learnt drives Continuous Improvement

I have mentioned the established project and programme technique of conducting Lessons Learnt exercises several times already.

It’s part and parcel of being accountable and even mid-flight, when performance falls short, it is an everyday expectation of governance that there is a fact-finding and analysis exercise, a willingness to acknowledge error, a structured Lessons Learnt report and, whether symbolic or real, a reset and a revised approach.

This is not exceptional, it is routine practice at the end of a project or programme tranche or, in the format of a retrospective, after every Agile Sprint.

By contrast, the political mindset is that lessons are only assembled and formalised when the event of national concern is over and done with.

Whilst war may justify the approach taken with the Falklands Conflict or Iraq invasion, this entrenched practice is less easy to justify when national security is not at stake and in-flight exercises stand to deliver significant performance improvements.

Typically, Royal Commissions or Public Enquiries are set-up with a chairman and terms of reference that are ostentatiously independent of vested interest or politics and therefore entitled to respect from all quarters.

But whilst the deliberations of these multi-million pound/multi-year exercises in holding Governments to account may influence future policy, they are, by their nature, too late to improve the matter being considered, whether that be the Grenfell Fire, Thalidomide or Press Intrusion. They reflect on real historic events but on a hypothetical future.

The project mindset is different and looks for multiple opportunities throughout the life of substantial projects and programmes to stop, reflect, learn, and improve or, to use the much more succinct Agile motto Learn & Adapt.

Whilst from the Lean world comes the easily misunderstood principle of Fail Fast, an exhortation to find solutions quickly by active management of the risk of failure, usually through prototyping and testing.

There are legions of examples where lessons should immediately have been learnt during the response to the pandemic, when the Government could, with dignity and intellectual honesty have acknowledged its errors, explained the lessons it has learnt and how policies and implementation would adapt. At the time of writing, debate is raging about controlling inbound travel.

Even at a time of heavily diminished air traffic, 30,000 people are still arriving at UK airports every day. Parliament has been slow to double-down on this issue, yet it is self-evident that the lack of an inbound travel strategy back in the Spring accelerated the spread of COVID-19 and fast-tracked entry of dangerous new variant strains into the country.

Yet having dabbled with temporary travel corridors, voluntary quarantines that weren’t enforced and travel advice that changed with the summer breeze, we are still debating what to do and clearly not managing the risk.

Lessons should have been publicly learnt back in the autumn about the initial spread of Covid to inform the design of an external lockdown that would undoubtedly have prevented many premature deaths and progressively conditioned people for a 2021 largely confined to the UK.

Good project practice encourages lessons to be learnt from projects that have gone before or are happening in parallel. Yet, our island mentality once again seems to have got the better of common sense as we fail copy ideas from the rest of the world.

Take, for instance, the confusing 4 tier system which the government concocted to avoid a 2nd and 3rd lockdown. Very few people got what they were entitled to do outside their home and the police found themselves in an enforcement nightmare typified by the 2 Derbyshire joggers fined for driving 5 miles to exercise and accused of  having a picnic by dint of the takeaway coffees they brought with them.

I can only imagine the many bad-tempered conversations overstretched policemen have had with resentful members of the public believing they were just getting on with their lives that began “What are you doing out today?”.

If asked in Greece, the citizen would have simply had to confirm the code they had been provided via automated SMS when registering excursions outside the home.

It’s a simple app that took conflict out of enforcement and was an obvious solution to the problem of declining deference and respect the average subject (we’re not yet a republic!) has for authority. Despite its much trumpeted digital strategy, when the chips are down, it seems HMG still prefers analogue.

Measure success by KPI’s, not Metrics

During a pandemic, statistics matter. Nightly, the tv news broadcasts line graphs depicting trends of infection, hospital admissions and deaths. From time to time comparator data such as mortality as a percentage of population are presented which, sadly, is giving us the first stat where we are finally beating (most of) the world.

Inconsistency of format and irregularity of updates aside, from a project perspective data presented to us as stakeholders is selective, simplistic, rationed, often starved of a wider context and comes with as few strings of accountability attached as the government can contrive.

In March 2020, Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser, famously described to the Health Select Committee that a death toll of under 20,000 would be a “good outcome”.

Unwittingly and clearly without baking in the copious amounts of fat that any good PM would add as contingency when you have nothing but a gut feel, he had set a measurement of success or Key Performance Indicator, KPI for short. Of course, the rest is the stuff of political morality tales as only one month on, fatalities exceeded this number and on the increase.

Of course, it was foolish in any profession to suggest a measurement of your own success that didn’t have a sporting chance of working to your advantage, but in politics it was a school-boy error and a grim gift that just keeps on giving to critics as almost a year on, the UK has suffered over 100,000 deaths.

But whilst a KPI for mortality is too sensitive to serve a hyper-political environment, the lack of any official KPI’s yet against suggests an unwillingness to be judged and accountable.

Why no target for the R number, for instance? Government holds many levers for bringing this below 1 yet pundits find themselves parrying words with ministers and advisors on the number that is a precondition for normality, without any reference to international comparisons.

The Government is uncharacteristically keen to share almost real-time statistics for the roll-out of vaccines and happy to go along with a loose goal of vaccinating all over-50’s by May.

But though the number of daily vaccinations tells us lots about activity, pace, and trajectory, it doesn’t tell us how close we are to the Eldorado that is a return to normality.

In all likelihood it is the mass roll-out of second jabs that will have the biggest impact on reducing hospitalisation and mortality and transmission, ie the R number.

Yet Government models are kept under wraps (arguably with some justification), there are no official targets by which to judge HMG’s performance or early indicators to alert us when Normal 2.0 is receding and no benchmark by which to evaluate roll-out stats, all of which is utterly anathema to a project mindset.

Were this my programme, I would happily design some simple Burn up charts depicting progress over time against target roll-out for first and second jabs.

The target number of jabs would be depicted on the horizontal blue line and the weekly roll-out on the ascending red line. Where they intersect gives me the date on which I have achieved the target R number.

If that intersection point slips to the right, I have some explaining to do. Should, as is likely only in some Project Shangri-La to which I am yet to be assigned, the intersection retreats to the left, I can lay claim to praise and acclamation for over-delivering and being punished for being a pessimistic with a positive outcome

Risk and the fatal marginalisation of Impact

Even rooky project managers know that, as a bare minimum, risk is a product of both probability and impact; that the simplest risk assessment technique assigns a rating to each and multiplies them to derive a risk magnitude.

In this way, low probability/high impact risks are typically treated with equivalence to a high probability/low impact risk with identical magnitudes. By contrast, time and again, Government decisions which are supposedly driven by an assessment of risk, patently focus only on probability.

Thus, at the outbreak of the pandemic, the risk of COVID-19 reaching, let alone overwhelming, the UK was declared by Boris to be ‘low’. Whilst few would be impressed by the simplistic assumptions underpinning his modelling, key is that he concerned himself only with probability.

The fact that the experience in South East Asia made it clear that the potential impact was serious suffering, premature death, decimation of care homes and a health service so stretched that the treatment of non-Covid disease would be de-prioritised was, as extraordinary as it is to say, disregarded.

Clearly the risk magnitude back in February 2020 was very high even if the probability merited a low rating because the consequence of Covid landing on our shores was mass fatalities.

Mitigation measures to control our borders and slow the inevitable arrival of the virus could and should have been implemented and, had a seasoned project professional been in charge, I am convinced the risk register would have been glowing bright red.

Whatever your opinion of Dominic Cummings, in a recent commentary, he recognised that in government, risk assessment put too much emphasis on probability, so it is a great pity that this insight was not put to good use into dissuading the Chancellor from implementing the problematic Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

This gave a modest boost to the hospitality economy but because, in summer, transmission levels were low and socialising often outdoors, all the potential impacts were given insufficient weight.

Thus, the legacy of this scheme in the run-up to Christmas was a false dawn of normality, a national delusion that we were over the worst of it and a general complacency in people’s behaviour.

When it became obvious that, in effect, Christmas needed to be cancelled to arrest rapidly escalating infection rates, the national sentiment had converted fatigue with Covid controls into a simmering resentment and latent rebelliousness which a prime minister too preoccupied with being popular simply did not have the courage to stand up to.

When I think about it, my youngest cat has a better grasp of risk analysis and assessment than Boris Johnson. Whilst she lives on a hair-trigger of fear of being aggressively cuddled by me, the near certainty that she can out-run, out-jump and out-scratch me with only a split second’s warning is insufficient comfort to this risk averse feline.

For, so terrible is the impact of what she dreads that she always perches just one stair higher than is needed to guarantee the easiest of escapes from my affectionate overtures. Even a cat with no formal project management qualifications knows that it doesn’t follow from a low probability that the risk magnitude is also low.

Strategic Planning for Normal v2.0

It is very hard to disprove the impression that the Government has not developed any kind of long-term strategy for dealing with the pandemic beyond a few months ahead.

Perhaps Boris heard a version of the General Eisenhower dictum that “plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable” and took it to justify a flood of reactive measures and neglect of planning a future after the pandemic.

As a result, over the last 12 months, the government has  lunged at one low-hanging silver bullet after another, whether that is bubbles, air corridors, tiers, voluntary quarantining or the £22billion  “world-beating” test and trace system which has distinguished itself only by having the poorest outcomes of any similar scheme, most notably that implemented in South Korea a whole year ago . A classic case, if ever there were one of overpromising and under-delivering.

Even the current vaccine rollout which, as already acknowledged, is generating the kind of metrics that finally offer light at the end of the tunnel, is still a glorified tactical measure.

Success predicated on inoculating the uninfected before Covid comes calling is simply a bet on out-running the virus; a gamble which takes no account of new variants, virus refuseniks, asymmetrical rollouts across the world, malfunctioning supply chain and downwardly revised vaccination success rates.

Despite frenzied tabloid talk anticipating a return to normal (which seems to be measured solely by the ability to take a foreign holiday and drink in a pub) as early as May, a lack of strategy means there is no national discussion on what New Normal will look like. Yet again, the population is unprepared for the future.

The worst sorts of projects are a Mexican bandolier of tactics, a loosely linked agglomeration of desirable features delivered with scant consideration of the To-Be process or High-Level Architectural Design or Target Operating Model. One of the fundamentals of Programme Management theory is that projects deliver outputs whilst Programmes deliver outcomes.

To focus on those outcomes, MSP prescribes first a Vision and then a Blueprint for life after new capabilities are delivered. Unfortunately, the UK Government has a Vision of a post-pandemic world which is as implausible as a winter without the common cold.

If they had a Blueprint, it would define Normal 2.0 and begin by acknowledging that we will never defeat Coronavirus, even with aggressive vaccination programmes, only contain or manage it.

Far from embedding new capabilities, the harsh reality is that Governments will be forced to roll-back privileges most of us in the developed world have taken for granted, most obviously around international travel and probably around attendance at mass events like football matches and stadium concerts which, at least in the short and maybe medium term may be subject to vaccination vetting.

Few believe the office will ever be the same again and whilst we expect there to be fewer fixed places of work and more working from home, it is also very unlikely companies will not seek to mitigate the risks associated with collections of unvetted employees confined in small meeting rooms and open-plan offices.

Similarly, do we really think that dentists, Travel Insurers and Life Assurance companies will not rush to use vaccination certification to filter out risks and protect the health of their businesses?

Much about the New Normal is hard to predict as would have been so for soldiers returning from the 1st and 2nd world wars to a world redefined by huge social and industrial change.

However, there is much we can prepare for which makes it all the more mystifying that some of the most obvious tools needed in the future are not being designed, prototyped or developed now.

The best example of this is the Government’s evasion of the need for so-called Vaccination Passports. These have been required for old-school diseases such as Yellow Fever for many years, so why is the UK falling behind countries such as Denmark where development of digital certificates proceeds at pace?

As far back as April 2020, a British tech company developed such a solution but as I write in early February there are petitions against such passports and after weeks of indecision, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister confirmed to Andrew Marr on 7th February that HMG was not pursuing this.

To those of us who spend our working lives leveraging technology for the better good of ordinary people, this lack of strategic planning is truly negligent.

Whilst Zahawi justifies this policy on the grounds that a formal passport will be “discriminatory”,  countries such as Spain are already recognising that some idealistic libertarian principles can have no place in the New Normal and are developing a register of vaccine refuseniks which will be put at the disposal of the EU.

Pumped up with a mission to out-run the virus, we can expect outbursts of Boris’ world-beating hyperbole and Pound Shop Churchillian rhetoric in the months ahead as the R number falls and hospital admissions retreat to manageable levels.

But whilst the Summer 2020 plateau will undoubtedly return and probably permanently stabilise, Covid-19 deaths will persist, anti-Brexit sentiment will push popular destinations, urged by an EU commission looking to reassert its authority, to require proof of vaccination; a hard-core of refuseniks and hard to reach communities will suffer and cause unnecessary suffering and businesses will need to mitigate the risks of persistent Covid-19 and its deadly spin-offs.

Society needs more than dates for when we can casually go back to work or go on holiday like we did in the good old days. It needs a Blueprint for Normal 2.0 and HMG to do plan the transition and embed the change needed to get there. If it doesn’t, be certain that there is a Black Market ready to fill the vacuum created by Government inaction.

Benefits Realisation requires a plan

It is a cliché in the project world that throwing large sums of money at a problem is never a solution, however tempting. Because a contagion of guilt circulates amongst stakeholders over the amount of time, money and opportunity wasted, even when a project is acknowledged to require a structural recovery, a big bucket of money is unlikely to be a panacea.

There is a very good reason for this: when cost is not a primary concern, waste and complacency set in; more specifically, lazy planning, sloppy controls and a mentality that favours risk taking rather than risk management.

We can see this with the grand project that was the Nightingale Hospitals. Nearly half a £billion was spent but fewer than 200 COVID-19 patients were treated at these sites.

It was a mammoth white elephant that achieved more in symbolism and morale building in the early days of the pandemic than in lives saved or pressures relieved on real hospitals.

The problem was that fearing an overwhelmed NHS, the government fell into the trap of throwing money at the problem without a robust Benefits Realisation plan.

Whilst the commissioning, construction and Coronavirus-readiness of these field hospitals was a huge achievement, much more was needed to realise the benefits of relieving the pressure on the NHS, first and foremost, a resourcing plan.

As a result, the UK has virtually nothing to show for a huge expenditure of money that could have  equipped every school child in need of a laptop and Wi-Fi during school closures.

The mismanagement of the remote-learning workstream is, of course, a scandal in its own right whose aftermath will be a national scandal in years to come.

A project manager would have recorded in the Risk Register the many opportunities lock-down presented to reform everything from student technology inequalities to the school year. Instead, in a First World country, we rely on tabloid newspapers to come to the rescue.

Final thoughts on Projects and Politics

Most seasoned project professionals have war stories illustrating the truism that projects and politics don’t mix. Politics draw the oxygen out of projects, drain resources of time and morale and are one of the big-ticket risks that a skilled pm will go to the ends of the earth to insulate a delivery team from.

If, as I believe, senior stakeholders are the top reason projects fail, then politics is the virus that infects those projects with diseases such as a culture of blame, micromanagement and organisational disengagement.

In a recent failing programme I took over, the external stakeholders were actually the shareholders. They chose to assemble a small team of representatives from their organisations into what they called a Task Force whose most vocal member was someone I shall call ‘Karl’.

Karl engineered things so that he had a weekly (and eventually daily) opportunity to torment the team with barbed questions which were engineered to cast doubt on my competence and that of my team, to suggest that the obvious had been overlooked or that we were making the wrong priority calls.

It wasted time to manage his interventions and rarely did his implicit criticisms ever reveal a material shortcoming or strengthen our approach. What it achieved, however, was to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of our insecure internal stakeholders and cultivate their mistrust of our whole approach.

I see interesting parallels between Karl and his Task Force and Keir Starmer and the Official Opposition. Keir throws up to 6 punches at Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday against a background of tv interviews and parliamentary interventions from his Front Bench, formulated to put ‘clear red water’ between the Pandemic policies Labour would potentially adopt and those of the Johnson Administration.

At times of National Emergency when lives, livelihood and our way of life is threatened, what experience of High Value/High Risk Projects tells us is that there needs to be unity, common purpose and a shared sense of being members of one big team fighting the Evil, not one another.

A different sort of criticism is needed; opposition for opposition’s sake is not constructive and the best ideas need to be pooled for the common good, no matter their political origins.

Don’t get me wrong, when Keir asks why the Government didn’t seal UK borders both in the early days of the pandemic and a year later when the latest focus is fear of proliferating variants, his question echoes what many of us have thought for a long time.

But Keir’s criticisms are topical rather than timely. He didn’t develop such concerns a year ago and present a well-rounded case to do what many regard as unthinkable because his soundbites were directed to a different topic of the day. If, as he likes to project, he and his team have superior insights and ideas that could strengthen the Government’s counter-attack, why are Labour’s contributions not made within the structures of the Anti-Pandemic Programme?

If, as proposed earlier, a Pandemic Programme Minister directed the effort, it would be much easier to find a seat at the table for Keir than our political system currently permits.

Just as Karl would have had a positive impact on my Programme had he stood on the stage with me and the team rather than heckling from the cheap seats, so consideration should have been given to Keir or his nominated subject matter expert being brought within the Programme Organisation.

And so, this article ends where it began, reflecting on the need for a Programme Organisation which is detached from adversarial political practices.

Which treats a Programme of this nature as a National Endeavour requiring National Unity and, yes, to an extent, elements of the National Governments that brought diverse political voices together during both World Wars and converted opposition to constructive tension.

Boris’ response to the pandemic is predictably party political. As such, political imperatives frequently take precedent over project principles and when the day comes for a Royal Commission or Public Enquiry to publish its report, the Lessons Learnt will be self-evident and wholly predictable.

Catharsis will be diminished by the anger around how many lives were needlessly lost, how much money was wasted and, just maybe, how little regard Government paid to the collective wisdom and everyday techniques of project professionals.

Paul Holmes is an Agile PM/PRINCE2/MSP-Certified IT Programme Manager with a track record of delivering complex IT software projects.

Paul Holmes
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