Jacqueline Hughes, a senior risk analyst at Equib, explores how disparate governance is creating problems for the rail sector
A lack of consistency affecting the governance of rail infrastructure projects has created a culture of short-termism and a catalogue of significant cost and time overruns. The use of disparate frameworks is partly to blame, but a lack of leadership could also be contributing to this underperformance.
Speaking at an online event recently, the chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), Nick Smallwood, called for greater clarity on governance and its communication. In a report published at Construction News, he highlighted the importance of ‘balancing political urgency to announce key projects, with the need for clear governance and facts’.
From a project manager’s perspective, while centralised and organisational governance frameworks may appear to be aligned, in practice there are some subtle differences, which can cause delays. In some cases, projects are being forced to take a step back before they can move forward.
Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) framework
Introduced by Network Rail in the early noughties, the Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) framework was developed to manage and control investment projects, helping to minimise and mitigate the risks associated with their delivery. It provides a step-by-step guide to progressing projects, complete with eight stage gates, at which checks and balances must be performed before moving to the next stage. This approach is designed to support de-risking decision making and improve project outcomes.
With a legacy of megaproject overspends, the Department for Transport (DfT) has been forced to take action to improve performance. At the start of Control Period 6 (CP6) 2019-2024, some changes to its governance framework were introduced, including new criteria and the gated release of funding on an annual basis. Despite its similarity to Network Rail’s GRIP framework, it is already becoming clear that using the two frameworks in parallel can cause issues.
One of the main problems that project managers are experiencing when adhering to more than one governance framework, is delayed decision making. For example, delivery schedules might be held up by the need to seek senior-level authorisation before spending budget, which falls within the project manager’s remit of responsibility. In addition, depending on the nature of checks and balances required at each stage gate, some projects are being forced to pause for DfT checks, even though the project team is ready to move to the next GRIP stage. Project managers are left in a Catch-22 situation where they need funding released in order to meet delivery targets, but decisions are not being made quickly enough.
While disparate governance frameworks are undoubtedly impacting performance, there are other factors too. A lack of understanding and poor communication could be partly to blame. If organisational leaders do not proactively uphold governance processes and procedures, those further down the chain of command may choose to behave similarly. Equally, wishful thinking could be left unchecked, influencing decisions further down the organisation. Removing governance protocols simply because they have become too onerous, may not be the answer and could make problems worse.
Instilling greater risk understanding and making sure project partners at all levels are familiar with the governance systems in place is essential to improving performance. Knowing who is responsible for decision making at each stage of the project and communicating this clearly across the organisation, will help to improve efficiency. Encouraging leaders to communicate clearly and stick to the facts, regardless of how this might be perceived, will ultimately help to improve their reputations and drive performance in the longer term.
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