Project Management in the Public Sector

Project Management in the Public Sector

The private sector breeds managers. The public sector breeds administrators. Managers make decisions that change the way things are. Administrators execute processes defined by others.

Rock and air are very different: one is hard and lumpy, the other isn't. But drill down and you'll find both are made of identical quarks and leptons and you could be tempted to conclude that rock and air are identical. Clearly you'd be wrong.

The primary goal of someone who runs a department of administrators in the public sector is to ensure that staff execute the defined processes properly. By contrast, an entrepreneur starts with a blank canvass, his goal, reached through vision, drive and unilateral decisions, being to create something new and profitable. There is a clear difference.

But what about a department in, say, the Inland Revenue processing tax returns and a department in an insurance company processing insurance claims? Aren't they essentially the same - both executing pre-defined processes? Can we not conclude that when you get right down to it the public and private sectors are the same?

Not quite. The Inland Revenue could be successful today if it were using the same pen and paper processes it used 50 years ago. But an insurance company taking that approach would long since have ceased to exist.

The underlying imperative in the private sector is to change in order to survive. The underlying imperative in the public sector is good administration. Thus the public sector promotes those who will ensure the existing processes are well executed. The private sector promotes those who will instigate and carry through change. From the apparently identical primeval soups of the Inland Revenue department and the insurance company department different beasts emerge. Administrators and managers respectively.
Project Management in the Public Sector

Public Sector Project Managers

And so we come to projects and project managers. What do project managers most need to be able to do? Administer pre-defined processes? Or make decisions that change the way things are? Go to the top of the class if you gave answer B.

But public sector managers are not bred to change things by being innovative and decisive. They are bred to ensure existing processes are properly administered. Which clearly leaves the public sector at something of a disadvantage when it comes to projects - just one reason why public sector projects can be prone to failure. But the public sector think they have a solution to this problem.

To illustrate how this works let's consider our entrepreneur. Isn't he in reality just executing a pre-defined process? A process that goes something like this: Step 1 - identify opportunity; Step 2 - do research market; Step 3 - calculate start up cost; etc

If the public sector were charged with creating new commercial enterprises it would no doubt rise to the challenge by commissioning consultants to write just such a process. It would then pick senior administrators, call them Entrepreneurs, give them the checklist and Bob's your uncle: successful new enterprises by the bucket load.

Crazy? Well yes, but that's exactly how the public sector approaches projects. A project management process has been written, people are sent on courses to learn the process and they are then called project managers and are given projects to manage. Result, successful projects by the bucket load? If only it were so.

Nowhere in the public sector training of project managers are they taught what it means to manage rather than to administer. Nowhere are they taught that projects require leadership, decisiveness (and sometimes unilateral, arbitrary decisions), authoritativeness (and sometimes authoritarianism) to be successful, let alone are they trained in these things. And so projects are merely administered, the administration passing for management: if the paperwork is in order the project is being well managed.

Of course, one could consider bringing in a project manager with a proven track record to manage that large I.T. project. But be wary of bringing in PMs from other fields: people who have managed construction projects will not necessarily be good at managing I.T. projects.

Project Management in the Public Sector - Training

All this is compounded by the public sector's inability to do what the private sector does: to pluck a talented aspirant from the ranks, assign him project responsibility and authority way beyond his pay grade and see if he's up to it. Then replace him if the project flounders, or rapidly promote him if the project succeeds. (Just reading the preceding two sentences will have any public sector HR person's hackles rising!) No, in the public sector you're only qualified to become a project manager if you are a person of suitable pay grade and job title (i.e. your title contains the word "manager"). And perhaps you have proven to be a good administrator.

Since the public sector is unlikely to have a Darwinian reprogramming any time soon such that good managers as opposed to good administrators are naturally selected for promotion, training public sector project managers how to be managers (as well as, much less importantly, teaching them the Prince2 project administration process) is the only solution on the horizon. Except that it isn't even on the horizon.

Come on all you training entrepreneurs, Step 1 has been done for you, there's an opportunity out there. But you'll need to be a good salesman if you're going to persuade all those "managers" in the public sector that they don't even know the meaning of the word.

Project Management in the Public Sector - a full description of Project Management in the Public Sector and in the private sector including the role of the project manager can be found here: Project Management in the Public Sector.

Project Management in the Public Sector is one of the topics covered in this Free Online Project Management Book. Many roles are described including:

Project Management Book

Project Management in the Public Sector and Private Sector is covered in this free online Project Management Book.

Project Management Articles:

Why Do Public Sector I.T. Projects Fail?

Quality Management in Software Development Projects

Risk Management in I.T. Projects

The Tale of Three Project Managers

Towards a Project-Centric World

Project Management Proverbs, Saying, Laws and Jokes

So You Want To Be A Project Manager?

I.T. Project Management Books

Project Management in the Public Sector

Copyright M Harding Roberts

Public sector managers are not bred to change things by being innovative and decisive. They are bred to ensure existing processes are properly administered.

Project Management in the Public Sector

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