The Major Projects Authority: A missed opportunity to control those runaway big ideas

Inside Whitehall: Politicians and civil servants are bad at getting things done on time and to budget

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The Independent Online


British governments of all shades have long had well-deserved reputations for being lousy when it comes to delivering major public-sector projects.

From the British Library (which took 15 years to build) to the Eurofighter (which cost £13 billion more than it should have done) to recent fiascos such as NHS computerisation and ID cards, politicians and civil servants are bad at getting things done on time and on budget.

Even the Palace of Westminster itself took 32 years to rebuild after it was destroyed by fire in 1834. Construction delays, cost overruns and the acrimonious blame game that followed are all familiar to today’s Whitehall.

So when the Coalition decided to establish the first ever cross-government body to scrutinise, advise and assist departments to deliver major projects many people, including me, thought it was a really good idea.

Its first boss was David Pitchford, who delivered the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and developed the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai: the largest land-reclamation project in the world.

At the Major Projects Authority (MPA), Pitchford gathered around him a small team with experience of procurement and development. Their job was first to identify large-scale projects that could go wrong, risk assess them and, where appropriate, parachute in staff to support the departmental project team. It was a novel idea for government and many civil servants welcomed it with open arms.

But four years on from its creation – sadly – the MPA seems to have become a shadow of its former self. Pitchford went back to Australia and his successor in the job, former BP executive John Manzoni, hardly had the chance to get his feet under the table before he was dispatched to take over the Civil Service following the forced departure of Bob Kerslake.

The MPA has not had a full-time head since October and there is no sign of one being appointed.

But more worrying is what senior figures in departments now have to say about the MPA.

They claim that, far from being a supportive, nimble organisation designed to help departments avoid pitfalls of major project planning, it has simply become a “tick-box auditor” that is less well informed than the National Audit Office, which should be doing that job.

One said dealing with the MPA was smothering their projects with bureaucracy, while another claimed that the calibre of those now working for the organisation was simply not good enough. They said that in one instance former MoD procurement officials had been taken on in a freelance capacity to assess a project in a different area of government, of which they had no understanding.

Privately senior figures in the Cabinet Office – under whose auspices the MPA sits – do not push back too hard against these claims.

They admit that some of the momentum of the early days has been lost and that the MPA may have fallen victim to a longstanding institutional Whitehall problem: that of seeing such innovations has harmful foreign bacteria – to be assimilated and neutralised.

But they insist the MPA has given the centre of government a much clearer understanding of the risk of individual departmental projects, and strengthened accountability across government.

That, though, is a small achievement compared to the original promise of the MPA and is likely to be lost entirely if there is a change of government and personnel in May.