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Ten essential steps for delivering successful public projects

Keeping complex public projects on track doesn’t have to be difficult. You just need a plan.

Despite the complexity of public projects—or perhaps because of it—successful delivery of a public project can be very rewarding. The stakes may be high, and there may be many stakeholders, but the effort supports improving our communities.

But what makes a public project successful? A public agency undertakes a project to fulfill a mandate.  So fulfilling that mandate is one measure of success. But mandates are broad, and rarely get as specific as an individual project, never mind a specific deliverable. Getting something done without inciting public criticism is ideal. But with the proliferation of social media and the ease with which people can voice negative commentary, it’s impossible to navigate the social media sphere without getting bruised. In the end, defining success on a public project is two-fold:  

  • Were broader objectives met in a reasonable timeframe?
  • Did stakeholders feel that the processes used to achieve these objectives were thorough and fair throughout?

How can we achieve these two, sometimes conflicting, objectives? Successful on-the-ground public project delivery happens with ten key steps:

  1. Get all partners on the same page. So many projects fail because, right from the start, project partners do not share a common understanding of what they are trying to achieve. Take the time to discuss with every major player, and in detail, the following questions:  Why are you doing this project? Who are you doing it for? What drives the timeline? Is this the right time for this project? What are your budget constraints? What level of quality are you aiming for? Examining these questions often reveals hidden objectives, such as the need for one partner to come in under budget, or the need for another to meet a certain timeline.
  2. Design an inclusive and detailed process before you begin. We spend a lot of energy designing project outcomes, but we rarely invest as much time designing the process. But in public projects, how you go about doing something, such as procuring a contract of consulting with communities, can matter as much to the community and your clients as what project you’re doing and why. Dissatisfaction with how a process was conducted is a leading cause of project stoppage. Taking the time to design a process that clearly demonstrates how and when key stakeholders will provide input can help avoid potentially costly process delays.
  3. Set realistic timelines and targets. Many people are afraid to set a schedule and show aggressive targets for public projects. If a project slips, they worry that this will reflect poorly on their performance. So the tendency is to set very conservative timelines. But doing this often feeds into the public and political perception that public agencies are inefficient. Schedule slippage for valid reasons is not a failure. More often than not, however, slippage comes from project teams not anticipating process steps, the time for consultation, and the time to get the necessary authorities to provide the required approvals. Successfully completing Steps 2 and 3, above, should greatly reduce the risk of project slippage—and improve your ability to set effective timelines and targets to keep your project on schedule and on budget.
  4. Seek buy-in from key stakeholders and project approvers early in the process. Stakeholders could be senior management, funding agencies, approval authorities, or the public. Asking stakeholders for buy-in for your process reduces the risk of problems arising later. Getting project buy-in from every major player is ideal. But you can still achieve project success provided you convince those on the fence to accept that your process is valid. And, now that you have all your stakeholders’ attention, listen to them. You might get feedback that helps you adjust and improve your project’s process.
  5. Write your plans down and work off written drafts. While everyone in the room is an expert on something, it is not productive to use every meeting to talk about general issues. Considerable time is lost on projects by holding regularly scheduled discussions, with no product being generated. Early in the process, assign someone to write a first draft of a plan/programme or strategy. People are more comfortable reacting to something than generating original content, so you’ll get better feedback. Also, real project leadership comes when someone has the courage to start gathering ideas into a working draft. Progress happens when the team non-judgementally collaborates to improve that first attempt.
  6. Decide early how you will communicate project progress and outcomes. Too many projects start without a clear picture of how the team will communicate project success. Will you generate a report, web content, or a presentation? Who is your audience? How will you present complex analysis? Invite your communications experts into the planning process early. They can help you tailor communications to fit your intended audience so your messages or findings will be timely, comprehensive, and well understood.
  7. Manage handoffs responsibly. Team members often turnover in the middle of the project and this can disrupt project progress. Sometimes turnover is unavoidable, but the effects can be mitigated if departing team members properly hand over key project information, like what they’ve  gleaned while executing steps 1 to 6. Departing team members should also introduce the new team members to all key stakeholders and express their trust in the new team member’s ability to continue with the project. This personalized handoff maintains stakeholders’ trust in the project and ensures a strong foundation for the new team going forward.
  8. Address all feedback, good or bad. Not all feedback will be positive—or possible. Someone may ask you to alter your process or a design feature. While you might not always be able to alter your plans to address a person’s feedback, you can address their concerns by clearly explaining why you’ve made certain decisions. This demonstrates commitment to the process. Granted, this approach doesn’t stop people from trying to scuttle processes to push their own hidden agendas. But, if you respond respectfully to those persons or groups who offer thoughtful input, they can help you to deal with other stakeholders who do not.
  9. Don’t fear redirecting a project. Too many projects fail because people are afraid to change a project’s direction just because they may miss a deadline—even when there’s clear reason to pause to gather more information before proceeding. Pressing ahead with a flawed project does more reputational damage than stretching your schedule to get the project right. Generally, if you have completed the steps above, and kept all key stakeholders apprised during the process, they will understand necessary delays when they arise. 
  10. Celebrate success and learn from failure. There are always lessons to learn. An honest evaluation will help you and others better scope future projects and improve your processes.

Public projects may appear to have lengthy and very complex processes, but that’s usually because they need broad stakeholder input to proceed. That’s what makes understanding and managing the process so integral to public project success. Despite their complexity, public projects can be driven more quickly, provided these ten steps are built in to the project right from the start.

With careful planning and outreach, a public project can successfully meet the project partners’ broader objectives in a reasonable timeframe, all while keeping stakeholders confident that the processes used to achieve these objectives were thorough and appropriate.

         Related Item: Community Development


So many projects fail because, right from the start, project partners do not share a common understanding of what they are trying to achieve.

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