Saturday, August 16, 2014

Project Management 101 - City of Winnipeg take note.

I'm posting about an issue I have never tackled publicly before. Typically, my posts are related to health care but that is just one part of my life.

Over the past couple of years I have watched the incompetence of our civic leaders in Winnipeg attempt to address the debacle that has become many of the capital projects they have undertaken in recent years.  The Police Headquarters, fire halls, shady land deals....the list goes on and on.  Finally, the results of several audits have been handed over to the RCMP for investigation.  It is clear the story is far from over.  The question for most members of the public is how do things get so bad and go on for so long?  To shed a little light on this I have to explain a little about my experience.

 For the past 20 years or so I have worked in and around Project Management.  I have worked mostly in construction and heavy industry.  5 years ago I joined Canada Post as they embarked on the largest capital modernizations in their history.  A 2 Billion dollar upgrade to their aging mail processing infrastructure.  Yes...that's Billion with a "B".  For the past 4 years I have been working with CPC (Canada Post Corporation NOT Conservative Party of Canada) as the Cost Controller for Postal Transformation for the Western Canada Region.  In other words, every dime of CPC money spent on the project has to go though a rigorous cost control process to validate any expenditure.  If you want to spend project money you have to comply with cost control and I'm the cost controller.

Many times I wondered what value my role really brought but when I read the countless stories reported in the media about civic mismanagement of contracts it validated my position and what I was doing.  In the back of my mind as I would read about all of that was going on at city hall I would think to myself, "that could never happen here."  Because CPC is a crown corporation there is an almost fanatical attention to transparency and accountability.  We need to be beyond squeaky clean.  We have been audited so many times by both internal and external auditors I've completely lost count.  There are literally dozens of people at CPC who are monitoring and controlling our projects to ensure the success of the program and ensure that we are fiscally responsible.  With this much planning and organizing and as our project is now coming to an have we done?  Strangely enough, our budget was $2 Billion dollars.  What will we have spent?  Ironically, $2 billion dollars.  In addition, has our projects been completed on schedule?  Yes they have. In fact our projected financial benefits are being exceeded.   This brings me to the subject of why I'm writing this post.

How can a bloated government bureaucracy deliver a multi-billion dollar project on time and on budget? What is Canada Post doing differently than the City of Winnipeg?  The City of Winnipeg like any government organization has procurement policies, and a robust procurement process.  In my career I have bid on many City of Winnipeg tenders.  The process is there.  Many big government proponents, wanting to "fix" the problem, want to bring in sweeping policy changes or new legislation.  New rules are not what is needed.  Enforcement of the existing rules are what is required.  So, why are the rules not being adhered too.  The bottom line is leadership.  Who is making decisions at senior levels.  Let me explain:

If a member of our project team needs to get some work done and they need it done quickly, we may not have time to go through all of the processes that our procurement policies require.  Does this mean we stop?  Not at all.  We have mechanisms built into our policies to address "emergency" situations.  Depending on the size and complexity of the request; approval to proceed may require authorization from our CFO or in some cases they may go all the way to our CEO.  This is where leadership becomes very important.  I am simplifying here, but the bottom line is that if we want to bypass our own purchasing rules all we need is a signature from a senior executive.  This is where our leaders set the tone.  If this process becomes routine and a standard practice, then it really minimizes the effectiveness of the rules that have been set in place.  From personal experience, if I am sending requests on a regular basis to Deepak Chopra to be authorized I would expect my career opportunities to be significantly curtailed.  That is a good thing.  Our senior leaders have made it abundantly clear that "exceptions" are sometimes necessary but will NOT be the norm.

To speculate on what is happening at City Hall in Winnipeg, it is clear that a culture has developed over time that there is a certain way of doing business.  That culture has lead to complacency and an acceptance of issuing contracts and doing deals that do not comply with their own internal policies.  This is an obvious leadership issue and unfortunately it has gotten so out of control that the RCMP have to step in.

I have a great deal of respect for our project managers and executive for the way they have managed our projects (at CPC).  What we have done has worked and that is proven by tangible results.  We have consistently delivered on time and on budget.  This all sounds great and I know it sounds like i've drank the "Canada Post Kool Aid." but there is also another harsh reality.  To manage a project in this way and to be completely publicly transparent is extremely expensive.  It takes a tremendous amount of effort and additional cost to manage a project in this way.  In the private sector you would never need to operate in this way.  In the private sector projects can be delivered much cheaper because they do not need to be accountable to a taxpayer.  If you ever wonder why people joke about how governments buy $2000 toilets etc it is because to be transparent and accountable takes a huge bureaucracy and that it is a really expensive proposition.  Government run projects are expensive because the public demands it.  That is not a bad thing; it is just reality.  The other grim reality of government programs is that even if the budget is spent wisely and all of the money is accounted for it doesn't mean the project itself will deliver the desired benefits.  In other words, if the project from the first time it was conceived was a dumb idea, the best management in the world will not change the fact that it was originally a really dumb idea.  Think about that for a second.  The two biggest line items of the provincial budget are Health Care and Education.  What are the two departments that Manitobans most complain about and feel they aren't getting the service they expect?  Health Care and Education.  Not surprising.

The real tragedy of what has gone on at City Hall is that there is a large (and expensive) bureaucracy in place.  In spite of having all of the pieces in place they have still failed, in a spectacular way, to ensure taxpayer dollars are managed properly.  It's time for senior leadership to step up.

NOTE:  As an employee of Canada Post, I am complying with Canada Post Social Media Policy.  The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the opinion or policy of Canada Post.

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