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Why projects fail
16 Jan, 2018

Michael Barnier’s slide on trade options makes clear the Government’s failure.

London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes that Michel Barnier’s slide brings back memories of lessons learned in government: projects fail when Ministers make announcements about them before they have been thought through.

Lessons from Government

At one stage I was responsible for improving financial management in a government department. I studied why so many projects failed or at least under-performed. My conclusion was that the biggest single reason was that people found “the answer” too soon.

In government, solutions are the easy bit. The really hard bit is defining the problem, working out what is happening and why, trying to get absolute clarity on what the government’s rôle is.

The difficulty of spending time getting the question right is exacerbated because we all feel deeply uncomfortable in that inquiry stage. Nothing is happening. You are thinking and talking to people, but there is nothing to show for it, no progress, not even a plan.

And then you find “the answer”. And everything feels much better. Now you can move to planning and implementation. Now there is progress.

Only of course there isn’t, because the answer that you find when you latch on to it too soon – before you have really defined your problem – cannot be the right answer because you have not yet worked out the right question, cannot be the best answer because you have not thought of all the options for answering the question.

Perhaps the answer is compelling because it exists. But that means that it is the answer to some other problem that someone else has in different circumstances – or had in some other time. Finding someone else’s solution to their problems can make you lost sight of what your own problems are.

I am sure that happens everywhere. We hear more about public sector project failure because institutional arrangements (public audit, Parliamentary committees) bring it into the open.

But the problem is exacerbated in Government because Ministers are under intense pressure to announce solutions. “A review” is derided as inadequate; the public wishes to see a concrete proposal. So Ministers give them that. Only afterwards is the analysis done. And then it is too late to vary what has been announced without loss of face.

Brexit: a solution looking for a problem

In so many ways Brexit feels like that solution that people have latched on to without defining their question and without looking at options:

  • Remember “what is the EU?” was one of the most common searches on Google in the days after the referendum.
  • Even now we do not have an honest presentation of what Brexit is, yet we are heading towards it as though the 2016 vote had approved a proper project plan or manifesto.
  • We do not consider other ways of solving problems. For example, the Leavers are right: the EU genuinely does have a problem with obtaining free trade agreements because of the need to ratify them through all national Parliaments. But that problem could be solved by means other than Brexit, for example by giving the EU legislative organs the authority to ratify FTAs. Just teasing, of course – Leavers would not like my solution. But for example proportional representation would be more effective than Brexit at “taking back control”.
  • The Government is making no serious effort to find out and disentangle the various reasons that people had for voting Leave. Theresa May simply asserted that control of immigration was the big lesson from the referendum. It was certainly a lesson. And it is something that Theresa May has always wanted. So she just heard from the referendum what she wanted to hear.

The Government’s Red Lines

Much the same is true on trade. It soon became unfair to accuse Theresa May of vacuousness in intoning “Brexit means Brexit” because she pretty quickly defined Brexit through her Red Lines.

What she did wrong was to subscribe to Boris’ – and Keir’s – have-your-cake-and-eat-it fantasy Brexit that we could be outside all the institutional arrangements of the EU, skip the obligations, and nonetheless have all the benefits of membership.

Michel Barnier’s elegant slide just makes clear how far the Government has defined Brexit. At some point the reality of the EU’s rules will collide with the fantasy that the two main parties are promising.

That collision is already happening: various industries, including chemicals, medicines and aviation, are calling for the UK to be regulated by the EU after Brexit. At the moment it is just bumps; soon it will be a crash.

We see again the problems that Ministers make for themselves by overdefining a project, overcommitting, before they have done the analysis.

Remember that the Cabinet only had its first discussion of the post-Brexit future in December 2017; that it was held without the benefit of those sectoral impact assessments that turn out not to exist; that its conclusion was to obtain the fantasy Brexit that will not be available.

Now What?

For public sector projects, the Major Projects Authority recommends early stage “Starting Gate” Project Reviews. These would make sure that the project was clear what the problem really was, that a range of options was being looked at. I am sure that Brexit itself and the Government’s approach would fail their Starting Gate reviews.

The equivalent project review process given where we are is a referendum on the agreed terms, once we know what Brexit means and the parties become honest in their proposals.

Peers should amend the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to provide for it; this time Labour should support the amendment when it returns to the Commons. As Tony Blair put it: unless Labour opposes Brexit or gives the public the chance to do so the timidity of Labour will have been the handmaiden of a Tory Brexit.