As the resettlement of Syrian Refugees exemplifies, government programs, currently running on RBM, can be made more accountable if they were managed using PM principles, as well.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has outlined five accountability criteria for evaluating projects: relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, sustainability, and impact. Setting the latter two aside, for now, the paper focuses on the tools to adequately meet the relevance, effectiveness and efficiency criteria in projects. All temporary endeavours with a clear beginning and an end, which result in a unique product, service or an output, qualify as projects.
RBM works well for relevance
The most widely used management tool in public service is results-based management or RBM. It focuses on achieving strategic policy goals, emphasizing that project outputs lead in a logical way to the desired outcomes. RBM relies on feedback loops via indicators, measuring the progress on immediate, intermediate and ultimate outcomes. For example, the resettlement of thousands of refugees (the project output) is logically connected to the strategic goal (ultimate outcome) to alleviate suffering in the Middle East. The project is generally consistent with foreign policy goals, e.g. it satisfies the relevant criteria in evaluations.
Moreover, managers also need to ensure projects are implemented effectively and efficiently, ensuring accountability to taxpayers. This entails achieving project outputs successfully (or effectively within the project scope) and economically (or efficiently with scarce tax dollars). While the RBM is focused on achieving higher level results or outcomes, it provides no tools to manage project outputs in a cost-effective and timely manner. More likely, RBM was not designed to achieve output effectiveness or financial efficiency – two of the main OECD evaluation criteria.
Effectiveness and efficiency through project management techniques
Often, evaluation reports indicate problems with controlling project effectiveness and financial efficiency. It may suggest a lack of project thinking, and yet project management (PM) principles could assist government officials to use the scarce resources efficiently and to ensure the achievement of project outputs. In addition, PM logic provides guidance for stakeholder management, a crucial aspect of a project’s success. Unfortunately, the public sector seems to overlook these obvious benefits associated with PM tools, giving greater emphasis to RBM practices.
PM tools lay out a coherent system for managing projects by creating a 2D matrix of project five phases (or life cycles) and project knowledge areas, such as scope, cost, human resources, duration, risk, communications, quality, and procurement.
For example, in the project initiation phase, the PM tools instruct managers to work on two knowledge areas only: to specify a project goal and to identify stakeholders based on an assessment of needs. In the proceeding planning phase, managers have to engage with many additional project knowledge areas. The most important task is scope management. The planners need to determine the work needed to achieve the scope, and only this scope, by breaking it down into manageable work packages or activities. To these activities, the planners will assign cost, allocate necessary human resources, stipulate duration, identify risk levels and determine quality requirements. Only then can the manager know the total cost, the duration, and risks of the project. Similarly, PM tools offer specific guidance for three consequent phases: execution, monitoring and controlling, and for the closing phases.
Lessons to be learned
Comparing project closure or evaluation reports to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) norms reveals several shortcomings. The biggest deviations between project management norms and management practice in Canadian government departments result from omitting, or shortening, the initiation phase and from blending the planning phase with the execution phase. This leads to confusion in many knowledge areas and severely impacts both project scope and cost management.
A good illustration was the Government of Canada’s aim to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and February 2016. It was a political commitment and major election issue in 2015. All parties presented their competing visions how they would respond to the crisis. The most ambitious plan in terms of volumes and timelines was presented by the Liberal party, committing to bring in up to 25,000 refugees from Syria under less than two months (from November to end of December 2015). What was less specific was the expected cost, the government’s capacity to deliver on the commitment or the impact on refugees. The planning and execution of this project were not entirely thought through, with no clear criteria provided for estimating the project’s success rate.
It was no surprise that the final reports of the Operation Syrian Refugees (OSR) reveal that the project suffered from a lack of interdepartmental coordination during the initiation and planning phases. While the whole of government approach to the resettling of refugees would require extraordinary planning efforts, involving dozens of agencies and departments, in reality, there were significant consultation gaps between the government departments. Lack of proper planning resulted in unclear responsibilities and competing priorities between different government departments.
The planning model used by the lead department IRCC did not sufficiently address the significant efforts required on behalf of other agencies, for example, the requirements to set up operations abroad to select the suitable refugees. The necessary activities to abroad were not properly planned out, which means that associated costs, task durations, necessary human resources, risk ratings or communications requirements to other stakeholders were not planned out. The bottom line is – managers cannot manage unplanned tasks effectively or efficiently. In the field, it means extremely high stress and burn-out threat for our officers.
The recently published IRCC Rapid Impact Evaluation Report of the Syrian Refugee Initiative further confirms that there was insufficient planning: forward-looking resettlement preparations and early integration phases were lacking in the first few weeks of refugee arrival in Canada. It is noted that ‘the expedited nature of the initiative made it challenging for the settlement sector to effectively plan for the delivery of in-Canada services’, and that ‘the quick pace was difficult on refugees’. In short – the project suffered under the lack of proper planning, which made the execution phase difficult.
The second gap between project management norms and actual practice relates to efficiency, i.e. how the total cost of projects is estimated in the Canadian public service. The OSR reports revealed that cost planning is conducted through “guess-estimations” by a budget office as opposed to rigorous activity-based costing by the project team. Budgets were often division-based instead of activity-based. Financial efficiency was thus impacted by estimates not sourced from individual project activities.
Faulty project initiation and planning makes it near impossible to assess whether the project was indeed a success. Accordingly, the IRCC Rapid Impact Evaluation report on OSR concluded that one major area, which should have taken into account to help ensure successful resettlement and settlement results was “the need for end-to-end planning”. Unrealistic timelines and overwhelming scope specification led to significant frustration, including among refugees. Nevertheless, the report declares that “the whole of government initiative was a great success in many regards” without specifying in which regards exactly.
As illustrated above, the public sector needs to establish project management logic – initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. It will help mitigate many problems, especially those linked to effectiveness and efficiency. Perhaps the Treasury Board of Canada 2016 “Policy on Results” has not paid sufficient attention to basic project management principles?
The PM Body of Knowledge offers a systemic approach to managing endeavours that are temporary, unique and have a clear beginning and an end. These include measurable guidelines for creating progress reports and closing all tasks. Employed in government departments, PM tools can thus offer increased efficiency and effectiveness in delivering outputs.
The public sector would benefit from extensive training in PM techniques. More importantly, public servants need to be overtly encouraged to use them in parallel with the RMB. Neither alone is a sufficient condition for success. Taken together, their strengths reinforce the probability of achieving relevant results effectively and efficiently.