Mr Caution

As I write, Dominic Cummings is telling a Select Committee about the utter disaster that has been the UK’s response to COVID. And everything he is saying sounds so so so familiar.

Every failure in government has the same four root causes, the only difference with COVID is one of degree.

Cause One: Ownership

Nobody took ownership of the problem. There were, eventually, committees and meetings at the (much less glamorous than it sounds) COBRA but there was no one person who owned the problem. This is the single most common cause of project, programme and delivery failure in government, and indeed beyond.

Everybody wants to be a leader, nobody wants to own a problem.

Anyone who mentions SROs will be bitten by bears!

Cause Two: Skills

The skills needed to deliver rapid solutions to complex and difficult problems are in short supply in the Civil Service because they are not regarded highly. Like all bureaucracies, the Civil Service values process over delivery because process is what it does 90% of the time.

Emergency planning requires a complex mix of skills and a continuing investment of time, money and leadership attention. And therefore it will be among the first things to be cut when budgets are tight.

Cause Three: Groupthink

The Senior Civil Service in particular is a collection of likeminded individuals. They are by and large very nice and very academic. They are not delivery people, they are not agile, they are reflective thinkers. Those who are delivery people find the culture hard to work in, I found it literally sanity threatening.

Cause Four: Learning

Learning from mistakes or successes requires two things – honesty and a feedback mechanism. The feedback mechanisms in government are very weak and usually very slow, based on reporting processes which are reductive (Red, Amber, Green) and with the author of the report being very distant from the receivers.

As for honesty, well just read Cummings’s testimony.

What Next?

The Committee will write a good report which will sit on the shelf alongside all the other reports on similar disasters.

There will be noises about improving training for SROs (grrrr), beefing up the MPLA (er, no, the Major Projects Leadership Academy), and there will be talk of another new project management process for major projects and programmes which will form another layer of shielding between the notional owner and the people doing the delivery.

So what should be done?

Three short recommendations:

  1. A named person who actually owns the outcome from start to finish.
  2. A “Department of Delivery” which is not part of the Cabinet Office but which focuses on leading rapid, agile delivery and sustaining those skills and that culture across the public sector.
  3. Every programme has a seanchaí, that is someone who is a combination of oral historian and story teller who is that living feedback loop.

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