Jesse Norman is Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire. His latest book is Adam Smith: what he thought and why it matters.
Today, I and thirteen other ministers are undertaking a potentially revolutionary experiment in government: the first session of a ministerial training course in project delivery, set up in conjunction with the Infrastructure Projects Authority and the Said Business School at Oxford University.
Every minister with major infrastructure spending in their department will take part in this new training programme, designed to ensure that future projects – some with shovels in the ground already – are delivered on time and within their allotted budget.
The Government has laid out an ambitious but realistic agenda to transform capital investment in infrastructure over the next few years. At the Budget, we announced our intention to invest over £600 billion in infrastructure over the life of this Parliament. Our ambition has been strengthened by the impact of Covid-19, and the importance of getting the country moving again and levelling up across the regions and nations of the UK.
But effective investment in infrastructure requires effective governance. As the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) has noted, too many major projects in this country have lacked a robust business case, and have no allocated senior responsible owner or Senior Responsible Owner (SRO).
What’s more, some SROs have too many projects for them to be able to handle. That needs to change, and the IPA is making very good progress in improving the procedures and governance on major projects.
Yet there is still a missing element: the client. Ask any infrastructure professional, and they will tell you that the major cause of failure on any project is a bad client. We all know what a bad client is in business: one who can’t decide what they want, who keeps changing the job spec, who takes only a partial view of what needs to be done. The same thing is true in project delivery.
I saw this myself after 2010 when I launched the cross-party Parliamentary campaign to reform – or, as it turned out, abolish – the Private Finance Initiative. We found that project after project had rocketing costs, poor quality work and, in many cases, a failure even to meet basic contract terms. This was often because the clients were local authorities and hospital trusts who were well-meaning, but with no background or experience in project delivery.
In my own local case of Hereford Hospital, independent engineering consultants found that the contractors had failed to install fireproofing, electrical, water and ventilation systems correctly. We made them go back and get all of them fixed.
So how do you create good clients in government? It’s one of the most important but rarely asked questions in politics. The first part of the answer is by making sure all senior civil servants in project delivery positions have proper training, and this is in hand through the Major Projects Leadership Academy, or MPLA, already now widely acknowledged to be one of the most effective programmes of its kind in the world. Indeed, in an ideal world it would be impossible to become a senior member of the civil service without having significant experience in a role of real operational responsibility.
But the second part of the answer is to ensure that those responsible for delivering our ambitious package of infrastructure projects over the next few years understand core principles of delivery, and can prevent overspends and overruns before they happen – in order to provide the best value for money for taxpayers.
With that in mind my colleagues and I will, start today on the process of equipping ourselves with some of the specialist knowledge and skills required to make our infrastructure plans a reality over the next few years. There is no policy without delivery, and this is a government that is going to deliver for the British people.
Having worked with the IPA and the Said School on the programme, I know it’s going to be fascinating and highly educational. With luck, we will be able to roll it out to all ministerial colleagues in the months ahead. But one thing should not in be doubt: this approach has the potential to make a huge difference to our ability as a government to build infrastructure across the UK that is on time, on budget, sustainable and as something our great country can be proud of. And that is our ambition.