Successful public sector project management is about people, not numbers

Drew Markham, Service Strategist at Fordway, discusses why successful public sector digital projects are 50% technology and 50% culture

Managing public sector IT projects is always challenging. Already tight budgets may be reduced during the project and carefully calculated timelines frequently have to be compressed and contingency removed due to factors outside the manager’s control. However, this is straightforward for experienced project managers who understand the climate and culture of their organisation. The biggest problems occur when those project managers become so focused on their spreadsheets that they fail to take account of human factors, and these can derail the most comprehensive plans.

A successful project is 50% technology and 50% culture. The role of a project manager is not just to implement new technology, but to ensure it provides tangible benefits to users and the public they serve. To ensure a successful outcome, they need to step away from their Gantt charts and get to know their users.


Designed around people

Priority one is to design the solution around how people actually work. This means involving users at every stage, from choosing equipment to testing training guides. There should be a user representative on the project board who is interested, empowered to speak out and whose opinions will be listened to. They know how things actually work, what applications are crucial to daily operations and which issues are likely to create roadblocks.

Without user involvement at the planning stage, potential problems may not be identified until much later, where they will have a greater impact. For example, an audit may not pick up the importance of an existing system unless questions are phrased so that users understand what is required. When asked if something is used ‘regularly’ the answer may be no – but it may be of great importance once a month for payroll. We have gone on site and been asked to fix things that have never worked but which IT were unaware of or had not documented. A realistic project manager will plan carefully and allow contingency for such events. In one recent NHS project the biggest user complaint was that they didn’t receive a laptop bag! The project manager had assumed this was unnecessary because staff already had a bag for clinical equipment – but this has no space for a laptop. They are now looking at bags with two pockets.

Regular targeted communications to the entire user population are also vital. This will bring people on side at an early stage and reassure them that their needs are being considered. Communications should be succinct, non-technical, use multiple channels and be relevant to the audience, otherwise they will be ignored. Simply telling managers to cascade information is not enough.

Thorough testing is vital, but too often this is cut to a minimum as schedules are compressed. Tests must be signed off by users, not the IT team, and time must be retained for both proof of concepts and pilots. The proof of concept can be largely internal to IT, but user representatives must be involved to ensure the solution is realistic.

The pilot needs to be carried out at sites with non-IT and remote users, and the project manager must accept that issues will arise. In fact, finding errors means it is a success, and they should be suspicious of 100 percent perfection. It should include testing for volume as well as a single use case and avoid over-reliance on automated tools. In one pilot we found that more than a few concurrent users crashed the system due to a third-party add-on, giving us time to fix this before the main roll-out. Time needs to be allowed between pilot and main migration to resolve issues and if significant changes are needed a second pilot may be required.


Breathing space

When full roll-out begins, providing breathing space is critical. If migrating multiple sites, plan for one large site a week, with small ones around it, and avoid major migrations on Fridays. It may sound obvious, but migrating two large sites in succession puts considerable stress on both IT and users. A project manager must be strong enough to resist external pressure and ensure their plan is realistic. This is where it is definitely not a numbers game but more a hearts and minds exercise.

Roll-out plans should also take account of working patterns. Most public sector organisations have flexible working and job shares, and some have shift working, so some individuals may not be in the office during the day for several weeks. Clearly plans cannot be stretched to accommodate this, so managers need to find alternatives such as creating ‘super-users’ at each site and in each department who can help their colleagues. Another technique is to send a team to a site to carry out the migration, followed by a ‘mop-up’ person a day later to check all is well and help those who were absent.

Most user populations follow a normal distribution curve: a few adepts who pick things up quickly and a few who will struggle, with the majority in between. In the public sector the population tends to be skewed towards the less experienced, and training needs to be designed accordingly. This requires the right materials, thoroughly tested with users, and a trainer with skills to explain things effectively. I came across one ‘trainer’ who said he would not give users a new laptop until they had been trained or “they will wreck it”. This type of attitude is counter-productive. You want users to warm to new equipment and be encouraged to use it.

To deliver successful projects, managers must step away from their spreadsheets and out into the real world. They need to understand their users, create realistic plans, find champions across the organisation and understand that achieving 100% is rarely possible in a world of legacy systems and human behaviour. It means planning for what they can see, ensuring their team has the skills to handle problems and retaining contingency for the unexpected. Without this, time will be wasted on recriminations and trying to make columns of numbers add up, rather than delivering the hoped-for benefits.

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