Project governance for Parliament

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This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Failing projects

The construction of the new Scottish Parliament building is a good example of how things can go so wrong on a project.

The innovative design was in its early stages when the procurement process started. Architects were bidding to deliver something within a specification of 20,740 m² and £50m. At this point, there were no guidelines on quality or timescale. The driving factors – those critical success criteria – had not been fully thought through. That’s not to say that the Scottish Office officials didn’t know what the project objectives were: they were to construct a new Parliament building. Lord Fraser’s report into the project says that the difficulties lay in establishing priorities . What was more important? These two specifications of size and cost, or quality and time? From the behaviour of the project team (in its largest sense), Lord Fraser concludes that actually time and quality were the two priorities, and cost was not really a concern. At this very early stage in the project, the procurement process was not done using a realistic budget estimate.

Garden lobby, Scottish Parliament

This was further compounded by revisions to the design, finishing in June 2000. This should have been carried out with user requirements in mind, but these were missing from the project documentation. The design team were trying to deliver something, having no clear idea of what the client actually wanted. The people who would be using the building also seemed to have a confused idea of what they wanted: as we saw above, there were no clear priorities or success criteria for the project.

The project did have a sponsor. Barbara Doig took on this role. She was a civil servant, and Head of Parliament Accommodation Division between March 1998 and May 1999. She was also a Scottish Parliament Director 1 June 1999 to May 2000, so she had a great political background from which to negotiate the successful completion of this project. Unfortunately, Lord Fraser believes the project would have been more successful if an industry expert – someone with a strong background in construction or the sponsorship of construction projects – would have been better in this role. Choosing the right sponsor is a critical part of getting a project right.

The main problem on this project seems to be a lack of communication, which Professor Gordon Humphreys called ‘the Bable problem’. This took several forms:

  • Messages being filtered for political reasons before being passed on to management. For example, a quantity surveyor produced an estimate of £89m, including a margin in case of risk; after all, this was a one-of-a-kind project, and it was highly likely there would be some unforeseen circumstances. The actual estimate passed up the line did not include this risk prediction, and was given as £62m.
  • Unclear vocabulary used in project reports. Terminology (project management jargon, and all other business vocabularies) only works when everyone using it has a common understanding of what it means. Is ‘estimate’ the same as ‘forecast’? The misunderstandings (whether intentional or not) that this uncommon vocabulary had on the team didn’t help advance the project.
  • Absence of project reports. There were concerns over whether or not the project would be completed within budget as early as November 1998. However, it took until March 1999 before the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, was given formal warning of any potential cost rise.
  • Lack of general communication at all levels. The project manager, Bill Armstrong, led the project until December 1998. He then resigned, but the senior stakeholders, the Ministers, were not aware of his departure until it was covered in the media in January 1999. This is symptomatic of the way in which the overall relationships worked between the stakeholders on this project.

There were many factors contributing to the ten-fold cost increase of this project, and the delays. From start to finish, the project could have been better controlled with more, and more useful, communication between all parties, better risk management and efficient cost controls.
If you want to read more about this project, The Holyrood Inquiry, a report by the Rt Hon Lord Fraser of Carmyllie QC, is available online in .pdf format.

Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2007

Next Monday, the final part in this series on failing projects:  Changing the perception of ‘failed’ projects

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