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Five Factors That Will Give Government Projects The Right Boost
By HARI RANJAN RAO, IAS
Implementation and timely completion of government projects is always looked down upon as a weak link. However, contrary to popular belief, there have been an umpteen number of instances when projects were completed within the time limit and without cost overruns. Sadly, due to lack of proper documentation and creation of any credible repository, such useful learning has been lost.

Some of the challenges in implementing projects in the government sector are quite different from the private sector. There is a strong case for setting up an institutional mechanism of documenting projects and their implementation from the project management perspective. With my almost 20 years of experience in the government, I suggest that the following factors can help officers and project managers improve their performance substantially.

1. Streamlining decision-making processes: Multiple layers of decision-making and various committees at every stage compound the problem of lack of accountability and independence. So, streamlining decision-making processes for various project components can prove fruitful. At the macro level, this may require process reengineering leading to amendments in manuals, circulars, and executive instructions, but it is worth attempting as such institutional changes have long-term benefits. For instance, in an urban development project in Madhya Pradesh, the average number of days from concept design to contract award was reduced from 270 days to less than 100 days by revisiting layers of committees and processes.

2. Establishing separate Project Management Office (PMO): This may appear to be a routine starting point for any project, but in many government organizations, projects are attempted without having a dedicated PMO. This leads to project milestones taking a backseat and mundane daily tasks taking precedence. Setting up a PMO with the right skill set can make a lot of difference on approach and goal-setting. This is precisely the reason why multilateral agencies like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and UKs Department for International Development insist on setting up of an independent PMO before starting any project in the government sector.

3. Continuous training and capacity building: There needs to be flexibility to engage or hire expertise from other government units as well as the private sector. Continuous training and capacity building of team members is the logical sequence to this endeavor. Lack of exposure to basic project management concepts can lead to disconnect between the top management and field level staff who are responsible for implementing the project. A structured training program consisting of technical and managerial skills must be approved right in the beginning.

4. Enabling contract management and standardization: Most government tenders and contracts are very tight jacketed without any flexibility. Cost escalation due to external factors like price rise and taxes are not factored in making project implementation unviable for the contractor. Therefore, measures like benchmarking the schedule of rates with independent market driven indices/indicators can be very useful. Contract management needs special expertise and governments must invest to develop it in its resources. One of the starting points can be to adopt standard bid documents prescribed by successful agencies and suitably modifying them. There should be provisions for allowing deviations and variations from the contract document (may be after due diligence by a committee to avoid any abuse).

5. Using ICT: Use of information and communication technology in projects can be a game changer. It brings transparency (with measures like e-tendering) and helps monitor milestones using standardized MIS. New technological frontiers like online platforms and mobile governance can be used to expedite processes of approval, measurements, and payments. In Madhya Pradesh, all government departments have been using online tendering for the past five years, awarding almost 50,000 contracts worth Rs. 1,20,000 crore. Payments are also made to contractors online directly into their accounts. As a next logical step, e-measurement and e-payment is being integrated with e-tendering, providing an end-to-end solution. Above all, political vision, clarity, and leadership play the role of a catalyst. Political leadership looks for results and by adopting good project management practices, government agencies can deliver projects on time and within budget.

(Mr. Hari Ranjan Rao is an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre. He is the secretary to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, besides holding charge of secretary, Departments of Information Technology and Public Service Management, managing director, Madhya Pradesh State Electronics Development Corporation, and chief executive officer, Madhya Pradesh Agency for Promotion of Information Technology.)
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