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D: Enhancing project management

Problems Exposed

The APS's professional capacity and technical capability in program management was roundly criticised in the HIP Royal Commission. Hanger found that DEWHA had next to no project management capability. Nor did it have the capability necessary to deliver a program of such size and complexity.[155] Despite being aware of this deficiency, the department failed to recruit staff with the necessary skills. Hanger was struck by the numbers of departmental staff, often in senior positions, who had no program management experience or qualifications. [156]

Peter Shergold AC

"If there were a single cultural predilection in the APS that I would change, it would be the unspoken belief of many that contributing to the development of government policy is a higher order function more prestigious, more influential, more exciting—than delivering results" (2005)[157]

Peter Shergold was the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2002 to 2007

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Of the twenty Capability Reviews conducted by the APSC and released to date, eleven have noted that departments struggle with project management skills and program management practices.[158] Successive ANAO reports have confirmed these findings, finding evidence of poor program and project management capability, particularly on more complex initiatives. Risk management, governance controls, financial and stakeholder management and benefits realisation have been identified as major areas of weakness in a number of programs.[159] The HIP was unusual in the scale and seriousness of its consequences, but the problem of not having in place people with the professional skills and experience to do the job is all too familiar. Hanger was well aware that past failures had engendered statements from government agencies of good intentions to lift their game. He argued that agencies' commitments to 'increase capacity' were too often a euphemism for promising to redress glaring skills gaps. The difficulty of building institutional competence and capacity was generally underestimated.[160] Too little changed.

Poor program management capability in DEWHA was compounded by inadequate governance structures, including a lack of clarity about who was accountable for what aspect of implementation. No Deputy Secretary was given the exclusive responsibility for oversighting the program. hanger found evidence of officials' inability or unwillingness to make decisions, exercise judgement, or express contrary opinions within the HIP PCG. This led to poorly informed decisions: by omission or by committee.[161] External experts were brought in to take responsibility for critical aspects of the program, such as risk assessment, business planning, project management and evaluation, but some of these consultants considered that they had a relatively limited role. They may have taken care but they did not accept responsibility.

Terry Moran AC

"Our sector tends to lack many of the 'strategic policy' capabilities common in the private sector, including commercial strategy, business planning, project management, IT and systems, capability development and accountability." (October 2014)[162]

Terry Moran was the Secretary of the department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2008 to 2011

Whilst there can be a strong temptation to outsource 'process'-oriented tasks, in practice this runs the risk of de-skilling staff and failing to harness essential practical and subject-matter knowledge. External consultants have their place. Used properly they can contribute good value. But they should not supplant fundamental departmental know-how nor be a means of abrogating responsibility. Indeed, the HIP should serve as a cautionary tale against undue reliance on external consultants for functions that should be core to departments' program management accountability.

Almost a decade ago I delivered an address to the department of Environment and Heritage (ironically, a precursor to DEWHA), extolling the virtues of project management. The message was simple: it is better for a government to have no policy at all than to develop a policy, announce it and then find out that the public service is unable to deliver on it. It is much more damaging politically to dash the public's expectations. Watching from the outside the roll-out of the HIP has reinforced these views. The APS continues to have a problem.[163]

Problems Addressed

The terms 'project management' and 'program management' are often used interchangeably in the APS without full understanding of their meaning. This reflects in part the relatively low priority that they have received, compared to other professional disciplines in the APS.

Project management is a formally recognised, often certified, discipline. It is based on a prescribed but adaptable methodology that trains practitioners to deliver clearly defined results, often in the short term. Program management, on the other hand, is a more multifaceted and complex discipline. While program management is underpinned by project management skills, it is a more complex and demanding discipline. Sometimes a 'program' —as governments define them—may comprise one large and complex project. More often, though, the task involves aligning multiple projects in pursuit of longer-term strategic objectives. The defining feature is a focus on delivering outcomes and achieving results. Good program managers typically have experience in policy design as well as project implementation. Sometimes they have been engaged in co-design, where delivery and policy work together. They understand the importance of good governance and external engagement to the successful management of programs. Program management is difficult work. It involves planning, organising and allocating resources to achieve goals. Too often forgotten, it requires the ability to motivate people across the organisation and outside it to realise the outcomes and benefits of a government program.

In the APS, program managers may be responsible for numerous multi-million dollar projects that are running concurrently. Effective program management involves more than strict adherence to a prescriptive methodology. Leadership skills, judgement, common sense, initiative, effective communication, negotiation skills and a broad perspective on the surrounding environment are all essential. Program management is a creative and collaborative process.

Program management in the public sector continues to evolve as a practice due to greater demand for innovative, citizen-focused delivery models. Program managers are now required to understand how to apply market-based mechanisms (such as reverse auctions or consumer-centred funding) and outcome-based contracts.[164] They must embrace digital engagement as a means of encouraging real-time feedback. They need to learn quickly. Program management in the APS now calls for agility and adaptability.

Project and program management are best viewed as placed on a continuum of complexity: a practitioner progresses from oversighting simple to more challenging projects and then goes on to develop a more strategic approach to integrating a diversity of longer-term management objectives.[165] The level at which a person is able to operate is an indicator of their career progression. Typically, a new project officer may commence their career with a short online course, and then work their way through internal training and accredited workshops in order to build their capability. Through further practical experience and competency-based training, the project officer may progress to a more senior role, taking on a full range of tasks from project initiation to completion. Program managers in the top echelon are likely to have years of experience, tertiary education, a commitment to continued professional development, demonstrated leadership and a track record of success. Often they possess a specialty in a particular aspect of program management such as benefits realisation or risk management. This progression may take over a decade. Managers will probably sport battle-scars.

Public service departments with mature program management capabilities value the experience and skill of their professionals. They assist them to gain experience and acquire professional accreditation. They provide financial support for participation in communities of practice. Some agencies, like the Department of Human Services, have already established a centralised model of program management to build internal capability, provide an independent level of assurance for programs with enterprise-level risks and oversee effective program delivery.[166] Such initiatives are to be warmly welcomed. They should be shared.

Having a single point of accountability is a cornerstone of project management methodologies.[167] The evidence from the HIP reveals that there was a lack of clear articulation of the role of the senior responsible officer and the abrogation (and devolution) of responsibility to 'the team'.[168] A named individual needs to be accountable for the end-to-end delivery of a project or program, within agreed timeframes and conditions, through their Secretary, to the minister.[169] While they can, and should, delegate tasks to suitably experienced and qualified members of their team, including those tasked with delivery from outside government, accountability for the success of a policy's implementation must remain squarely with the SRO.[170]

Single point accountability is not about greater bureaucratic proceduralism or endless layers of reporting. Indeed, bureaucratic concerns about probity and agency have, traditionally, hindered exactly the kind of collaboration and flexibility required between the APS and the non-government organisations involved in the co-production of public policy outcomes.[171] Emerging forms of governance, such as 'network governance' offer the promise of more 'joined up' services without a concomitant reduction in the accountability of all of the actors involved.[172]

Network governance models may at first glance appear to blur these lines of accountability, with multiple government agencies and third party delivery agents being responsible for aspects of implementation at different stages of the project or program. The establishment of program advisory committees, capable of engaging in both formal and informal stakeholder consultation, is a useful way of formalising channels of advice from diverse perspectives to the SRO. This does not mean that the SRO can abrogate their responsibility to 'management-by-committee'. Rather, SROs must ensure that each contributor is clear on their responsibilities, how performance will be indicated and measured,[173] their decision-making capacity and where they fit within the program governance structure. In the end, they remain accountable for ensuring that the job gets done well.

Many competent project managers work in the APS. They oversee the multitude of projects which abound throughout government. Surprisingly however, there appears to be a decline in the number of high-quality, experienced and qualified practitioners at the very time that the complexity of government projects is increasing. The emerging capability gaps are being filled by public servants who have fallen (or been pushed) into these roles. Often they have limited experience and qualifications and are given insufficient support.

The importance of formal qualifications should not be underestimated. One of the best levers to mitigate risks associated with program delivery is to have properly trained and certified practitioners. It seems inconceivable that an agency would put an 'unqualified' manager (someone lacking accredited proficiency) in charge of a multi-million dollar program, but in fact this occurs regularly. Formal qualifications and demonstrated proficiency are a prerequisite for many professions that are given authority for financial and administrative risks inside and outside of the APS: consider, for example, lawyers, engineers, veterinarians, accountants and auditors. These professions have long-standing educational requirements which provide a degree of assurance to employers of the competency of the practitioner. The more senior the practitioner, the higher the level of qualification that is expected. So, too, should it be expected with project and program managers. The need for professional certification has been recognised by industry associations and training institutions in Australia and overseas.

This is not to suggest that pursuit of formal recognition of specialist skills should detract from the value placed on experience. Rather, APS agencies need to identify and encourage talented project managers and then support them to map out a career path to more senior program management roles. Agencies need to be discerning consumers of the training products on the market, and access the best ones that can be tailored to APS processes. Program managers need to be prepared for an evolving public sector environment.

The APSC would be well-placed to work with industry associations to develop suitable project management and program management standards relevant to the public sector context. Setting minimum competencies, subject to the operational requirements of each agency, would increase the professional standing of project and program management skills within the public service. It would significantly strengthen APS delivery capability.

In addition to formal professional recognition, the availability of ongoing professional development helps practitioners to continually improve their understanding of their field of expertise. Having opportunities to network with professional colleagues is a useful way to build collective expertise. Communities of practice should be supported. They enable members to develop and share a suite of resources and can draw upon collective capability for virtual support, hands-on assistance or the identification and recruitment of talent. Some also provide a mechanism for continuing education through professional certification.

Many program management communities currently exist.[174] They draw together practitioners working across the APS, in state governments and the private and not-for-profit sectors. They provide a breadth and depth of experience and insight. As a way to facilitate participation in a professional community, agencies should support staff attending these forums as a vehicle for career development. In return, those staff should be asked to drive continuous improvement of program management in their home agencies.

There will always be occasions in the public sector when the right combination of expertise and subject matter experience does not exist within an agency to effectively manage a major program. That helps to explain why the development of policy supporting a program can be the responsibility of one agency, but implementation is sometimes assigned to another agency with specialist delivery capability. Not every agency has—or needs to have—equal capability 'on tap'.

Such situations may call for highly trained and experienced program managers from across the APS and private sector that can be used as a shared resource, able to be mobilised as they are needed. Hanger suggested establishing a "central team of project implementation specialists that could be deployed to an area that needed resources and expert advice".[175] There are a few different models for achieving this. One is centralised centres of excellence where expertise is clustered in the one department. For example, AusIndustry provides a single point of business between the Commonwealth Government and businesses, including managing grants programs for other departments.[176] It provides for career development, creating expertise and assurance that risks are being well managed. Centres of excellence work best for activities that are more transactional, where scale breeds efficiency and the connection to policy objectives, stakeholders and the broader environment is less critical.[177] For complex major projects like the HIP, a more bespoke, agile capability is required. The notion of establishing a 'tiger team' is one that should be adopted. It would assist the APS to meet future challenges of government program delivery, particularly with new, large and complex initiatives.

Internationally, tiger teams have already been used to great effect for short-term, high-stakes program implementation. In particular, the United Kingdom Civil Service has successfully adopted this model to deploy scalable rapid response program management teams under the direction of its Major Projects Authority.[178] In the APS, mobile program management units could be utilised in the early stages of major government initiatives. They could also be brought in at critical junctures to address emerging risks that threaten the potential success of a program.

With extensive experience working on complex public and private sector programs, members of tiger teams would be able to share their collective knowledge of lessons learned. They could identify critical governance, resourcing and planning requirements in order to improve the likelihood of successful implementation. The teams would bring a critical outside perspective, as well as strong capability in program management.

Creating a centrally-managed register of qualified and experienced practitioners from across the APS would facilitate the establishment of such teams. The register should include the best program practitioners within the APS, bolstered by experts from the business sector. The existing register of Assurance Review teams administered by the Department of Finance could be built on for this purpose, but should also incorporate a new induction program to school practitioners in the tiger team methodology.[179] The APS needs to get behind such a whole-of-government approach in a concrete way. Departments need to be willing to release their best program managers for deployment at short notice, knowing that at some time their own agency may need similar assistance.

Deployment of a tiger team to a specific project would operate best at the authority and expense of the relevant agency head, though from time to time it may be necessary to have the Secretaries of PM&C and the Department of and Finance, together with the Australian Public Service Commissioner, exert their influence on behalf of cross-agency collaboration. The technical term is 'knocking heads together'. Once deployed, the teams should not be seen as a panacea. They may face significant cultural difficulties gaining traction in the organisation they join. They will probably need to wrestle with agency-specific practices and cultural norms. Success will depend on having a clear mandate and authority from within the agency, strong leadership and the ability to deliver high-quality projects and programs under intense financial, time and political pressures. It is a model which will only work when the teams have unambiguous support to get the job done.

Here is a truth rarely admitted in the APS. Policy skills are generally viewed as a 'creative' or 'strategic' while implementation skills are often perceived as 'corporate' or 'operational.' This outdated assumption can result in a bias towards promoting the former at the expense of the latter. It is premised on a falsehood. Most leadership positions require a variety of expertise and experience across policy advice, program design, service delivery, regulatory impact, procurement practice or resource administration.[180] This is not an argument for more generalists. Senior leaders can be specialists in more than one area, and their professional background often continues to influence their managerial capacity. Regardless of background, the key to success is that leaders have the capability not only to provide strategic advice but to oversee its execution. They must understand that these skills are two sides of the same coin. They should have a depth of understanding in both.

Changing the recruitment criteria for senior executives would be a means of driving change over the medium term. Building on the 2013 legislative changes that broadened the roles of the SES,[181] there would be benefit in reviewing the Integrated Leadership System that frames SES recruitment. Aspiring SES candidates should be expected to demonstrate a breadth of experience during the selection process, and be able to indicate the value that their technical skills and professional expertise bring to senior management.

Let me return briefly to my 2006 address to department of Environment and Heritage staff. "Australian public servants tend to be very good at developing policies," I argued. "It is undoubtedly our strength. We need to complement that professional experience with an ability to implement programs." Nine years on I find myself delivering the same verdict.

CONCLUSIONS | Enhancing program management

D.13 The Australian Public Service Commission should work with industry associations to develop standards of proficiency for public sector project and program managers, with agencies committing to support these staff through career development opportunities, continued education and participation in professional communities of practice.

D.14 For all projects and programs, there needs to be a clear understanding about who accepts end-to-end responsibility for managing implementation, wields delegated authority and where accountability resides.

D.15 The APS should establish a 'tiger team' capacity by which service-wide expertise can be harnessed to assist Senior Responsible Officers in the management of high risk, large-scale projects.

D.16 Whilst acknowledging that different departments have different workforce needs, Senior Executive Service selection criteria should place greater emphasis on program leadership when considering a candidate's demonstrated breadth of experience.


[155] Hanger, I 2014, p. 299.

[156] Hanger, I 2014, p. 301.

[157] Shergold, P, quoted in T Mendham 2005, 'The State of Project Management', CIO, 1 November, online, <http://www.cio.com.au/article/143117/state_project_management/>

[158] The Capability Review reports can be found online at Australian Public Service Commission 2011-15, 'Capability Reviews program', http://www.apsc.gov.au/projects/capability-reviews

[159] ANAO audit reports reviewed included: Department of Defence, Capability development Reform (30 October 2013); Department of Defence, Recruitment and Retention of Specialist Skills for Navy (18 December 2014); Department of Defence, Multi-Role Helicopter Program (25 June 2014); Department of Industry, Commercialisation Australia Program (17 June 2014); departments of the Prime Minister & Cabinet and Human Services, The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (25 June 2014); Department of Agriculture and Australian Customs and Border protection Service, Screening of International Mail (18 June 2014); department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Department of human Services, Cross-Agency Coordination of Employment Programs (17 June 2013); AusAID, AusAID's Management of Infrastructure Aid to Indonesia (28 May 2013); Department of Employment, Administration of the Fair Entitlements Guarantee (23 April 2015); Department of Education and Training, Administration of the Australian Apprenticeships Incentives program (23 April 2015).

[160] Hanger, I 2014, p. 302.

[161] Hanger, I 2014, p. 305.

[162] Moran, T 2014, 'On Reflection', Public Administration Today, Issue 40 (October 2014), pp. 4-5.

[163] Shergold P 2006, 'Project management in public administration', Speech presented at ANZSOG Conference on Project Management and Organisational Change, Canberra, 22 February.

[164] North, J 2014, 'Outcome-based contracting is on the up: Who's doing it, why, and what you need to know about it', Corrs Chambers Westgarth Lawyers, 13 May, <http://www.corrs.com.au/publications/corrs-in-brief/outcome-based-contra...

[165] Project Management Institute 2005, The standard for program management, Second Edition, Pennsylvania, USA.

[166] Tanner James Management Consultants 2014, 'P3M3 Assessment Report—Department of human Services 2014, <http://www.humanservices.gov.au/spw/corporate/publications-and-resources...

[167] Kerzner, H 2015, Project management 2.0—leveraging tools, distributed collaboration and metrics for project success, International Institute for Learning Inc, New York, USA.

[168] Hanger 2014, pp. 303-304.

[169] Netherlands Ministry of Finance 2000, Government Governance— Corporate governance in the public sector; why and how?, Government Audit Policy directorate, The Hague, Netherlands.

[170] Australian National Audit Office and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2015, Better Practice Guide– Successful Implementation of Policy Initiatives, p. 23, Australian Government, Canberra.

[171] Evans B & Saphea H, 2015, 'Are non-government policy actors being heard? Assessing New Public Governance in three Canadian provinces', paper presented at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Program in public Policy and Administration, Glendon College, York University, May 25-26.

[172] Considine M & Lewis J 2003 'Bureaucracy, Network or Enterprise? Comparing Models of Governance in Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.' Public Administration Review, Vol. 65, no. 2, pp. 131-140.

[173] Perrin B 2015, 'Bringing accountability up to date with the realities of public sector management in the 21st century', Canadian Public Administration, vol. 58, no. 1, pp. 183-203.

[174] For example, the Department of Finance facilitates a P3M3 community of practice; the Department of Social Services facilitates a business analysis community of practice. Externally, organisations such as Corporate Executive Board, the Canberra Evaluation Forum, the Australian Institute of Project Management and the Project Management Institute facilitate online forums and communities of practice.

[175] Hanger, I 2014, p. 302.

[176] The Department of Industry and Science 2015, 'Single Business Service', <http://www.business.gov.au/about-businessgovau/Pages/Single-Business-Ser...

[177] Bryan K, Herbert, I 2012 'Raising the standard—organisational design: the role and form of the Centre of Excellence', Management Services, Journal of the Institute of Management Services, Summer, vol. 56, no. 2, pp. 30-35.

[178] United Kingdom Cabinet Office 2011, 'Major Projects Authority', <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...

[179] Department of Finance 2014, 'Assurance reviews and risk assessments', <http://www.finance.gov.au/assurance-reviews/>

[180] SES roles are set out in section 35(3) of the Public Service Act 1999.

[181] Public Service Amendment Act 2013, part 3, section 5.

Last reviewed: 
13 June 2018