David Finlay, formerly Director of the NAO's PFI team and currently training Civil Servants and Public Sector workers for the Civil Service College, advises all government projects to consider if their contract management capabilities are fit for purpose.
Are you immersed in managing a difficult contract? Have relations with your partners to the contract become increasingly strained? Do you have concerns that a contract that seemed appropriate when it was let may not be delivering what you really need today?
If you answered "yes" to some or all of these questions then you are in the company of many other contract managers. But it also means you should take time to consider why you have tolerated these problems for so long and what you could do to improve your approach to contract management.
It is very easy to become used to a situation where value for money and service quality is ebbing away whilst problems are dealt with, resulting in future planning being put on the back burner due to the constant tension in the relationships with your partners.
For those participating in Civil Service College training seminars, I have developed a unique contract management health check. It enables each project overseer to objectively consider if their contract management approach is healthy or in urgent need of an overhaul to prevent a serious breakdown in achieving the project aims. Participants in the health check are asked to say to what extent various examples of good contract management practice are occurring, for example, whether problems are quickly resolved in a constructive manner. A health check score is then computed, indicating the relative health of the project's contract management in comparison to desirable levels of capability.
When we recently asked a group of contract managers to carry out the health check a few scored 60 or 70 out of a maximum 100. These were good scores and it is encouraging that some projects had adopted many of the good practice techniques of contract management, which help them to stay ahead of the game.
But the overall picture emerging from the contract management health checks was concerning. The average score of all the projects, which completed the health check, was a very modest 46 and some projects scored as low as 25 and 30. Taking the group as a whole an average score of 46 means that in numerous cases value for money and the quality of service delivery were seriously at risk.
At least these projects have taken the first step in undertaking the health check of their contract management capability. Many others struggle on with difficult situations on their projects and have not stepped back to assess in what ways their lack of contract management expertise is contributing to the difficulties.
Once a health check has identified that contract management skills need to be improved, then suitable training is an investment that will reap dividends in the longer term, even if it does mean a little time away from handling day-to-day issues.
At the Civil Service College we are now running one-day training events on contract management skills. Delegates can either attend an open course where they will have the opportunity to meet and network with contract managers from other parts of government; or a one day bespoke workshop for an individual project can be arranged. This will give delegates a full day that is devoted to examining the particular issues on their specific project, and is a great opportunity for in-depth analysis of a single project. In this bespoke workshop Public Sector and Civil Service officials have the option of attending on their own or with their private sector partners.
We will be tracking contract management capability over time. One hopes that, with appropriate training, the worryingly low current average health check score of 46 can be improved significantly to demonstrate that relevant training in contract management is an investment for future returns.