Infrastructure and Projects Authority can only provide active support to less than half of the government major projects portfolio

The UK is “trying to do too much” when it comes to major projects, according to the boss of the government’s project management office. 

Speaking at a House of Lords committee hearing yesterday, Nick Smallwood, chief executive officer of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), said the government major projects portfolio (GMPP) was overprogrammed. 

Crossrail - Woolwich station - Feb 2020 (3)

Source: Crossrail Ltd

The IPA chief announced the body would be publishing a lesson-learnt report on the much-delayed and significantly over budget Crossrail project

“It’s not decisions made by the IPA about which projects proceed and which get approved, that’s for the departments to do,” he told the built environment committee, adding: “I personally have a view that we are overprogrammed – I think we are trying to do too much.” 

The GMPP consists of the 266 most difficult projects that the government is engaged in and is overseen by the IPA, which reports to the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. 

Smallwood said the large portfolio of projects forced the IPA, which has a staff of less than 200 people, to prioritise its resources. 

“I can typically provide active support and advice to about 100 of those projects, I simply don’t have enough resources to do more than that,” he said. 

“We are very selective to work on the priority projects, not necessarily every red[-rated] project.”

Each year, every project in the GMPP undergoes a gate assurance review by the IPA and is given a traffic light ranking – but since taking over in 2019, Smallwood has reduced the number of ratings from five to three, to provide additional clarity. 

In its most recent report, the IPA issued a red rating – which means the body does not believe the project can meet its objectives on time and within budget – to 27 of the 235 major schemes then under consideration. 

Smallwood, former chief projects engineer at Shell, told the committee that he had introduced 12-week reviews for red-rated projects following the annual report, to ensure that project leaders are implementing their recommendations. 

He claimed that 82% of projects that underwent these reviews had moved into the amber or green categories by the time of that review. 

The IPA chief also used the committee hearing to express concerns that some projects in recent years had progress without sufficiently detailed benefits statements and said “more rigour” would go into ensuring these are drafted going forward. 

Of recent benefits statements, he said: “They are very broad, very high level, not specific enough and not sufficiently detailed enough for you to go back with rigour and ask if the project delivered.” 

Smallwood also announced that the IPA would be publishing a lessons-learnt report on Crossrail this year, expected to be at the end of the first quarter.