AN OXFORD course has the daunting task of training people to run £350bn worth of major projects the Government has in the pipeline.

And whether it’s new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, underground lines across London or reforming the benefits system, the stakes are high to get them right.

The Government itself admits its record of delivering these huge schemes on time and on budget is not good – until recently only around a third were hitting their targets.

The West Coast Main Line hit the news last year when mistakes by the Department for Transport resulted in a major franchise deal collapsing, costing the taxpayer up to £50m.

And similar failures are the reason why in 2012 the Government teamed up with Oxford University’s Said Business School to launch the Major Projects Leadership Academy.

Now the first 50 people to take the course have graduated and head of the Civil Service Sir Bob Kerslake says it is starting to have a real effect on how Whitehall operates.

It does this by sending some of the country’s top civil servants back to school – complete with homework, lectures, essays and a final examination at the end of the course.

And the stakes are high for the participants too, after Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said he won’t be funding any more projects run by anyone who has not passed the course.

So, over the course of 15 months, the students have been learning about leadership, delegation, management techniques, and how to keep costs under control.

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The Crossrail project to create a new railway link spanning London from east to west is expected to carry 200 million passengers a year and increase rail capacity in the capital by 10 per cent

To help them, major figures such as High Speed Two chairman Sir David Higgins and Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme have been drafted in to give them the benefit of their experience.

Academy director Paul Chapman said the programme, developed with the help of accountancy giant Deloitte, is now becoming famous around the world. He said: “The individual thing we try to teach is critical thinking.

“There are lots of thoughts on how to deliver projects and not all of them are terribly robust with a lot of evidence behind them.

“The head of a major project is like the CEO of a temporary organisation. So they need all the same skills as a chief executive.”

Mr Chapman said the course currently has 200 civil servants who have started it, but he hopes that will rise to 340 by the end of this year.

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The London 2012 Olympics is cited as a major project Britain got right – unlike the West Coast Main Line franchise which First Group won in competition with existing operator Virgin Trains, only for it to transpire that Department for Transport officials had got their sums wrong during the bidding process, which had to be scrapped at a cost of £50m

On a recent visit to the Said Business School’s Egrove Park campus in Kennington, where the course is based, Sir Bob Kerslake said he was impressed.

He said: “We in the Government are responsible for a huge range of very big projects, whether it is defence or health or roads or schools.

“Making sure these are delivered well is crucial, and a lot is done well, but if we get this right we can deliver big projects on time and so also save money.

“From what I have seen it is an excellent course. It is the first time we have seen something of this scale, with 200 participants in two years.

“We have had people through and what we have found is together with other things we have done it has led us to improve our confidence in delivering projects on time and on budget. Two years ago we were delivering around one third of projects on time and now it is up nearer two thirds.

“We have had some high profile things that haven’t gone to plan, such as the West Coast Main Line, as well as some that have, like the Olympics.

“It means we are able to do the things that matter to the public at low cost – and that has to be a good thing.”

He added that there has been interest in the course from other countries struggling with major projects of their own.

‘This course ticks all the boxes’

AMONG those who have recently completed the course is 44-year-old Stefanie Murphy from the Department for Energy and Climate Change.
She said: “It has been really valuable. You are taken out of the busy day-to-day and presented with some challenging material which forces you to come at things from different angles.
“People on the programme do a vast array of different projects and people from different backgrounds come at things in completely different ways.
“I have been exposed to different ways of thought and given ideas to take back to my own department.”

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Civil Service head Sir Bob Kerslake, right, with course director Paul Chapman, second right, and participants Tony Graham and Stefanie Murphy

Tony Graham, 52, from the Ministry of Defence, agreed and said his work delivering warships for the Royal Navy will benefit from what he’s learned.
He said: “It changes your fundamental thinking about how very huge projects operate.
“When you start to do major programmes they become much more strategic and a lot more complex — affecting many more people.
“When I started working on projects, the budgets were in the hundreds of millions and now they are in the billions.
“I used to have hundreds of staff working for me and now I have thousands.”
Among the course’s more unusual features are a look at leadership in Shakespeare’s Henry V and a discussion of how it can be applied to real life.
The participants have also visited RAF Brize Norton and RAF Benson, as well as Oxford University colleges such as Christ Church, to study different leadership styles.
Course director Paul Chapman said he has been delighted by the response from those who have taken it so far.
He said: “Tony and Stefanie are not unusual in enjoying the experience, the feedback has been fantastic.
“We ask them to grade it on a scale of one to five, with five being excellent, and 95 per cent thought it was excellent.
“But the real test is if it makes a difference.”
Mr Chapman said he was sure the course had already produced “tangible savings” in excess of the cost of running it, and hopes to soon have the data to prove it.