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What is the Major Projects Authority and why is it ruffling feathers?

27 February 2014

The Major Projects Authority (MPA) is in the news - a new chief executive, John Manzoni (a former BP executive) was announced this month and at the same time the government controversially exercised its veto rights under the Freedom of Information Act to block publication of an MPA report into High Speed 2.

But what is the MPA and why is it ruffling so many feathers?

Hopeful beginnings

The MPA was established by the coalition government in response to a National Audit Office (NAO) report 'Assurance for High Risk Projects' published in June 2010.

The government's high risk projects are frequently large scale, innovative, reliant on complex relationships between diverse stakeholders and therefore more risky than anything seen in the private sector.

In light of this, the NAO concluded that the assurance systems in place were too patchy, tunnel-visioned within departments and did not systematically capture lessons learnt from projects. It called for a central, mandatory system of assurance to be established that would significantly improve the delivery success rate of its major projects. 

The government agreed, establishing the MPA in April 2011. The MPA is a partnership between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, giving it political and economic influence. It has a clear mandate from the Prime Minister for the oversight and direction of major projects funded by central government - essentially this is all about improving project management.

The MPA has the authority to:

  • Require an 'Integrated Assurance and Approval Plan' for each major project, including timetables for Treasury approvals
  • Escalate issues of concern to ministers
  • Publish project information consistent with the government's transparency agenda
  • Build project management capability through education and leadership programmes
  • Require a mandatory 'starting gate' review for all major projects to ensure it is ready
  • Publish an annual report on all major projects, assessing how likely they are to meet their time, cost and quality targets.

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, commented:

"The MPA has real power to intervene in failing projects and stop taxpayers' money being wasted, and it is already turning around our record of delivering Britain's most important projects."

Mixed results so far

The MPA published its first report in May 2013 and revealed a mixed bag of progress. Of 160 projects assessed, the MPA gave each a traffic light rating as follows:

  • 32 green: successful completion is 'highly likely'
  • 49 amber/green: success is 'probable'
  • 48 amber: success is 'feasible' but significant issues exist
  • 23 amber/red: successful delivery is 'in doubt, major risks apparent'
  • 8 red: deemed 'unachievable' as a result of budget, schedule or delivery problems.

An open and honest road ahead? Really?

At the time, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said:

"Transparency is not easy. We are taking a big step by publishing this honest appraisal of our major projects. A tradition of Whitehall secrecy is being overturned. And while previous governments buried problems under the carpet, we are striving to be more open."  

However, this commitment to transparency as a way of driving performance improvements has rather come back to haunt the government now with the row over HS2. The MPA rated HS2 as amber/red, making it one of the more shaky projects in procurement.

Surely one must conclude that the MPA's report into the management of the HS2 project must be pretty damning, which is why the government wanted it suppressed?

This is all rather ironic, given the dedication to transparency - but in the end perhaps it suggests that the MPA's report is robust which is ultimately a good thing for the taxpayer?