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Consultants can help build internal capacity to manage large and complex schemes, says Sally O'Reilly...
Consultants can help build internal capacity to manage large and complex schemes, says Sally O'Reilly

Project management skills have become increasingly important in local government in recent years. But with the emphasis on multi-disciplinary working and

collaboration with the private sector, and projects increasing in scale, project management is also more challenging than ever. So managers in local authorities need to develop this area of expertise.

Alan Warner, head of people and property at Hertfordshire CC, believes councils have much to gain from professional project management. 'It makes a lot of sense to have big schemes properly project managed,' he says. 'Until now it has not been a traditional local government career, though it has existed, with a particular concentration in building and IT. But we now have some very complex projects emerging, and if they are to be delivered to requirement, on time and on budget they need the focus a project manager can bring.'

Mr Warner stresses the key to success is to judge each project on its merits and seek out internal staff with project management potential. All projects by definition have a start and end point, and the short-term nature of the work is attractive to some but a turn-off for others. Project management responsibilities should not be foisted on staff who don't relish the role.

'We need people who are highly skilled in budgeting and performance management, and who understand the people implications of what they are doing,' he says. 'And they must be able to lead and motivate multi-disciplinary teams and problem solve.'

Buying in experts to oversee highly specialised or challenging projects is sometimes necessary, even though it can be expensive. The priority is effective management and organisational efficiency.

But when hiring in specialist project management consultants, senior managers should take the opportunity to learn from their knowledge, rather than simply seeing external consultants as short-term troubleshooters.

Hiring consultants is not an excuse to neglect the development of your own people, points out Gillian Hibberd, corporate director (organisational development and human resources) at Buckinghamshire CC.

'We recognise that bringing in expert consultants is a waste of resources if they just leave and take that knowledge with them once the project is over,' she says.

With this in mind, Buckinghamshire has set up a core team of four people who specialise in project management, and eight employees from different disciplines are seconded into the team each year. When external project managers are brought in to do a particular role, they work with this team, so their knowledge becomes embedded in the organisation.

Each secondee works in the team for one to two years. Once they move back into their post, they pass on their knowledge to colleagues. Buckinghamshire is now training its third cohort of managers in this discipline.

Using external consultants to help build new competencies into the way the council works fits in with the requirements of the comprehensive spending review and best value. It also links to the council's talent management programme and succession planning.

'There are core qualities that we look for,' says Ms Hibberd. 'There is a lot of competition for these places, and we do have a selection process. But this is not a bad thing, as it raises the profile of project management within the organisation. It's seen as an important development opportunity, and people are keen to get involved.' Skills and attributes the council looks for in potential project managers include logical thinking, a willingness to process complex information, good organisational skills, the ability to communicate well, high levels of emotional intelligence, and people management flair.

Staff at Buckinghamshire are entitled to five training and development days a year, but in return have to let the council know how this investment is benefiting their performance.

Councils who are not developing the project management skills of staff already should prioritise this now, believes Ms Hibberd. Failing to do this could be putting future plans at risk.

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