The RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) issue in schools has sparked a new wave of concern for a range of public sector buildings, including hospitals and even parliament itself.
The issue has highlighted the many problems that can arise when projects are insufficiently managed. But what could the government and other parties learn from project management, to prevent such instances from reoccurring?
Dr Serkan Ceylan, Associate Dean within the Faculty of Business at Arden University explores the common ways projects fail, and whether or not there’s anything to learn in the way the RAAC issue was handled.
RAAC – What went wrong?
Effective project management is all about using collaboration across teams. Thousands of projects fall short each year due to ineffective two-way communication and poor time management.
For instance, people waste an average of 91 minutes each day on tasks and meetings that aren’t important to their role, meaning managers and professionals lose 30% of their time they could have invested in other productive tasks.
In some cases, the consequences can be dire. The impact of the RAAC issue in schools has not only disrupted the lives of many children and their education, with more than 150 schools, colleges and nurseries in England being ordered to close all or parts of their buildings, but it also poses a big safety risk for those in other buildings with RAAC, due to the risk of collapse.
The issues around RAAC were first investigated in the 1990s, and at the time, it had raised some concerns, but no conclusive evidence of immediate safety risks was made. However, when a ceiling collapsed at a school in Kent in 2018, the Department for Education decided to act.
School authorities were sent questionnaires to try to establish whether or not they had RAAC in their buildings. However, it could have been likely those at the school didn’t have the expertise or resources to correctly identify RAAC, which points to our first problem: miscommunication.
In 2021, the Office of Government Property sent out a formal warning notice about RAAC, stressing the material was “now life-expired and liable to collapse” – pointing to a second issue: poor time management. In 2022, the Department for Education sent out professional surveyors to classify RAAC constructions as ‘critical’ or ‘non-critical’, to which three buildings that were listed as non-critical later failed – prompting the school closures.
What we often see go wrong in project management is that there is poor planning involved, unclear objectives and poor communication, a lack of stakeholder input and engagement resulting in change resistance, and red tape or budget issues which can delay and strain how well a project is completed.
Government projects are not immune to such issues. One of the most significant UK government digital project failures was reported to have spent £7bn against an initial budget of £2.3bn. In fact, with there being so many people involved and long processes to complete between each stage of a project, we could argue that there is more risk of issues occurring with big governmental projects.
To address such challenges, effective project management practices, including robust planning, risk management, stakeholder engagement, and clear communication are essential. On top of this, adhering to Agile project management can provide a better structure, which, in turn, can help to mitigate some of the common issues encountered in large government projects.
What is Agile?
Agile project management focuses on delivering maximum value against business priorities in the time and budget allowed, with flexibility at the core. The main principles include breaking a requirement into smaller pieces, which are then prioritised by the team in terms of: importance; promoting collaborative working; taking time to reflect; learning and adjusting at regular intervals to ensure the final outcome results in benefits; and integrating planning with execution, which will allow an organisation to create a working mindset that helps a team respond effectively to changing requirements.
Agile requires transparency, regular reviews, and continuous improvement. Initially designed for software development, this approach toward project management is now widely applied across industries for its ability to enhance responsiveness to customer needs and improve project outcomes by fostering close collaboration, flexibility, and a focus on delivering value in small, frequent increments.
These elements are not only becoming more important when completing projects, but they also ensure projects get to completion within projected timescales and budgets.
To adopt this approach, the government will need to work toward cultural change, leadership buy-in and a willingness to adapt existing processes and structures to better align with Agile principles.
As large government projects often involve a range of partners, the inter-organisational coordination challenges are one of the reasons why governmental projects are sensitive to failure, but while this transformation to an agile approach may take time, it is one government bodies are slowly making headway with.
There are also doubts about the scalability of Agile in such large government projects due to the lack of Agile skills and the failure to make the required changes to organisational structures. Unresolved tensions we’ve found in previous research include cost-value, project approval, policy, governance and culture.
Project managers can overcome this by implementing the following steps:
The Agile transformation in government has come a long way, but a great deal of organisational design effort is still needed. To tackle this, organisations need to overcome: the lack of understanding of Agile, the inconsistency across project teams and the organisation, the resistance to change, the lack of alignment with compliance guidelines and insufficient management participation.