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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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Leadership training mandated for senior Whitehall project managers


Civil servants are to receive mandatory training in leadership and project management skills thanks to the creation of a new £7 million Major Projects Leadership Academy.

But the initiative, which will be delivered in partnership with Oxford’s Saïd Business School and consultants, Deloitte, is targeted to save the government £10 billion per year once it is up-and-running.
The aim of the Academy is build up the skills of senior project leaders across Whitehall so that they can deliver complex projects more effectively in a bid to reduce the government’s current over-reliance on expensive external consultancy.
In future “no one will be able to lead a major government project without completing the Academy”, the Cabinet Office said. The UK government is the first in the world to introduce compulsory training for top civil servants in charge of major projects.
The news confirms plans announced last year to reform civil service training at the senior level and ensure that managers and buyers are better trained in order to lessen the risk of wastage in big projects, including ICT ones.
The Academy will draw lessons from other sectors and projects, including the experience of the government’s lead non-executive director, ex-head of BP, Lord Browne of Madingley.
Creating ‘world-class’ skills
The organisation will be managed by the Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority, which was launched in 2010 to oversee large initiatives and try to ensure that they deliver value for money for taxpayers. The MPA’s current portfolio contains more than 200 projects valued at around £400bn.
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude claimed that the body has already saved £147 million after having reviewed the government’s biggest projects in order to see where costs could be reduced in practical terms and within contractual constraints or where wasteful projects could be axed altogether.
“We do have impressive expertise in the public sector at the moment, but we want to take a long term view and build this within Whitehall. Crucially, this will relinquish taxpayers from having to foot the bill for external consultancy to deliver the projects and services the country needs,” he said.
The move was an important step in the government’s plans to reform the Civil Service and build "world-class" project leadership skills within government, starting with existing leaders, Maude added.
Three primary focuses of the Academy will be to develop major project leadership (50%), technical understanding of major project delivery (25%) and commercial capabilities (25%). The goal is to build up the practical skills necessary to ensure that senior practitioners can deliver very large and complex projects “on time and on budget”.
The Academy’s programme will kick off in October 2012 and take two staggered cohorts of approximately 25 people every year, each of whom will have to complete three week-long residential modules as well as tests to assess their competence. Teaching will be “60% practical and 40% theoretical/academic,” the Cabinet Office said. 

One Response

  1. Civil Servant Training – Commercial Awareness and large projects

    I suspect many might be aghast that those in charge of commissioning and managing large Government projects have not already been trained in Project Management.  I know the public sector is generally very sensitive about being compared unfavourably with their private sector counter-parts, but it is truly hard to imagine that many of their opposite numbers in the private sector have not already been so trained even to take on such a role, let alone to take on senior responsibilities.

    But that is not the thrust of this post.  Rather, it is that I am not at all sure that ‘Leadership skills’ are the other primary missing ingredient.

    Having negotiated many hands-on Contracts of Supply in the private sector with a wide variety of public sector clients at a senior level for a large part of my career – and not just in the UK – I would identify the general lack of ‘commercial awareness’ (and Contract Law) for civil servants as being far more critical, relevant and beneficial than leadership skills.  (And while you can always ask the advice of a wise Contract Lawyer to advise from either side of the desk on the paperwork, often at considerable cost, the real omission in my experience is much more ambiguous, but really critical, ‘commercial nous’.)

    And this can be trained.  There is certainly an academic component to this – not the least because some of the research is really excellent, if little known.  There is also a significant and essential behavioural element to this learning, which is just as helpful and relevant as in acquiring rather different ‘leadership skills’ – both of which can benefit from an amalgam of academic and practical input.  But in my experience, acquiring the practical skills of leadership and applying them is utterly different from acquiring hands-on ‘commercial awareness’, and it would be a real opportunity missed to conflate or confuse them.

    This may well beg the question, as with ‘leaders’, so with those who are ‘commercially smart’, can you identify and assess the inate characteristics on recruitment that will most quickly consolidate any additional development?  (That is not to ask if either are ‘born or bred’, which I think is a blind OD-alley to pursue; but rather, might some not be more readily developed?)  I would strongly suggest; yes.  I think the private sector tends to achieve this assessment by the ‘sink-or-swim’ principle, of which I have seen little evidence in the public sector – and I accept this may be highly sub-optimal!  But I find  that the selection process starts at a much earlier age when it is seen to be far more mission-critical in the private sector.

    Any views?



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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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