Strong but flexible: creating effective central project management offices

By on 18/02/2021 | Updated on 24/02/2021
Central project management offices co-ordinate professionals across disciplines and cultures to deliver government projects. But their structure needs to be both robust and agile. Credit: Olivier Darbonville/Unsplash

Central project management offices help to boost skills, delivery and oversight across departments. At a recent GGF webinar, experts highlighted the need to balance greater coordination and governance with the flexibility and autonomy required by frontline staff

It’s something of a dichotomy that governments are responsible for delivering some of the biggest projects in the world – from mass urban mass transit schemes such as London’s Crossrail, to international events like the Olympics – and yet face unique organisational challenges that can hamper delivery.  

Infrastructure projects, for example, can be years if not decades in the making – so it is inconvenient, to say the least, when general elections regularly lead to sharp changes of direction. Incoming ministers may have no knowledge of the project, and may even have campaigned against it. Projects funded by public money attract close media scrutiny, and many programmes involve complex, interlinked delivery projects controlled by multiple departments and agencies.

To try to address some of these problems, many national and state governments have set up project management offices (PMOs): central units that provide oversight, tools and assistance for delivery teams, help to build specialist workforces, and drive cross-government reforms. By tracking project development, offering training, developing policies and deploying specialists, PMOs can play a key role in improving governments’ project success rates. 

The benefits and challenges associated with PMOs were debated last month at a Global Government Forum webinar, supported by knowledge partner Axelos. The panel found that while such offices can increase efficiency and ease communication across disciplines and cultures, they require strict governance and agile structures to ensure they do not just become another layer of bureaucracy.

Structure

At the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the central PMO is core to the organisation’s success, according to Sonja Varga, head of programme at the organisation’s Ghana Operations Hub. This is partly due to the scale of operations: last year, UNOPS – which provides peace, security, humanitarian and development solutions, mainly to developing economies with a recent history of conflict – completed more than 900 projects worth US$2.3bn in areas such as health, renewable energy, transport, agriculture and governance.

Sonja Varga, Head of Programme, Ghana Operations Hub, UNOPS

At UNOPS, the PMO plays a key role in allocating staff across the agency’s projects. “We create new project teams as we enter into new country offices, and we close them down as the projects evolve,” she said. “So we also need a certain degree of agility in terms of the way that we operate our business.”

One of the benefits of PMOs is that they increase efficiency, according to Varga. “It allows us to share resources – both technical and support functions – across multiple projects and even country offices,” she said.

The central office also provides an overview of programmes, and shares learning across the workforce. “It allows us to have an outlook over a diverse programme through the maintenance of dashboards and the establishment of monitoring tools. These also assist and facilitate efforts towards continuous improvement in the delivery of individual projects,” Varga added.

But PMOs need strong governance to achieve results, she noted. “For that you need to have clearly delineated responsibilities for governance, including mechanisms for performance-monitoring and oversight. We have project boards for every single project. Likewise, we also need to have very strong resource management systems in place that allow for the most efficiency in terms of the resources that we use.”

Bringing together the organisation

In governments, PMOs are critical to ensuring that overarching strategies are implemented across departments, according to Allan Thomson, global PPM product ambassador at Axelos. “It’s vital that organisations and governments have a functional PMO to facilitate the implementation of a framework effectively throughout the business,” he said. “To support the teams, the PMO must be involved in the facilitation, development, planning, monitoring, advising and supporting of all projects and programmes.”

Amy Paris, Product Manager and Digital Service Expert, U.S. Digital Service at the Department of Health and Human Services

Indeed, a major role for the PMO is to ensure experts in different disciplines communicate effectively, argued Amy Paris, a product manager and digital service expert in the US Digital Service (USDS) currently working at the Department of Health and Human Services. The USDS provides recruitment solutions across multiple US government departments and agencies, and Paris gave the example of when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services wanted to hire data scientists.

“When you’re trying to coordinate across technical professionals – so data professionals, project management professionals and policy professionals, as well as medical officers – these folks don’t often speak a common language and it’s our job to do that translation. One of the things that the PMO does to make this process easier for agencies,” she said.

This again can lead to increased efficiency. As a result of the PMO’s work, Paris said, the time it takes to hire federal employees has reduced, without no lowering of the calibre of hires (using digital tools to process applications has also helped). “You can read a lot of articles in the media about it taking months and months to hire people into the federal government,” she said. “But it’s now taking anywhere from 5.5 to six weeks.”

Communication and collaboration

But PMOs must be involved from the start and alert to the specific needs of each project, noted Janice Vella, graduate architect and civil engineer at the Ministry for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects in Malta. She has a particular specialism in landscaping, and shared several instances where the failure to bring in expert landscapers early during projects led to problems. 

Janice Vella, Graduate Architect and Civil Engineer, Project Design and Engineering Directorate, Works and Infrastructure Department, Ministry for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects

Again, Vella pointed to communication, noting that major projects often involve people from different disciplines, countries and cultures: “It all boils down to good communication, which we hope that the centralised PMO would be able to take care of,” she said. 

“Speaking from the landscaping sector, I think when we get people from different countries, they have to be a little bit flexible and understand that our climate and our soils and our vegetation are different from the ones that they are used to. And certain techniques, even when it comes to pruning and the uprooting of trees, are different from what they are used to in their countries.” 

In fact, understanding and respecting different cultures is a “massive, massive point”, according to Thomson. “You really need to take into consideration the cultural aspects,” he said. “Having managed some global programmes in the past, you’ve got to take into consideration the different holidays and so on and build them into the plan, into expectations. If you get this wrong or you don’t do it at all, it can have enormous consequences on your project output.”

Focus on results

At UNOPS, Varga said, “the number and diversity of the layers is almost infinite,” because the professionals work in multicultural teams in different countries – so having the right structures in place is essential.

Allan Thomson, Global PPM Product Ambassador, Axelos

“The systems need to be robust, but they also need to be agile enough to allow for continued delivery,” said Varga. “We have to recall that we’re delivering projects for the benefit of improving the lives of the people we serve, so we have a high degree of social responsibility in the way that we go about doing our work, but we also have to maintain a results-oriented and solution-oriented posture. It’s a delicate balance.”

That focus on results and resources is particularly important as governments battle COVID-19. Given the vast sums involved and the huge public need for support, said Thomson, every penny of stimulus money needs to be spent as efficiently as possible. “Governments… must be ready to face the challenges ahead and a lot of that involves catching up to where they should have been,” he said. “It’s really important that organisations need to be very careful with specialist resources.” 

The webinar ‘Projecting forward: operating central project management teams’ was held on 26 January 2021, and supported by Axelos. You can watch the whole event via our events page or below.

This article was corrected on 22/2/21 to clarify two of the insights shared.

About Adam Branson

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