William of Ockham’s First Law of Government Projects

To the casual observer, corruption and incompetence are indistinguishable.

I’ve been asked to troubleshoot a failing government project.

How badly failing?

It has taken twice as long as originally planned to deliver a fraction of the benefits at three times the original budget. There is a further year of work to go and it would seem there will be a further blow out of cost to achieve that. It’s not clear the planned benefits will ever be achieved to more than perhaps half of those first planned.

“So what?” you might say, “this is how government projects always go”.

You’d be right, of course; the dictionary definition of a unicorn should probably include the words “government project delivered on time, budget and to scope“.

But, putting the low expectations aside, let’s run a little thought experiment….

If I run a government project and double the payments to the third party supplier for no increase in scope, you’d assume I’m in their pocket, right?

However, if I run the same project and descope half the functionality but hold the milestone payments at the same amount….. you just assume blah blah blah unforeseen complex technical issues.

The outcome is almost the same for the supplier though; maximised margin. The second scenario might even be considered worse for the taxpayer; they receive less of the value planned in the “business case”, whereas a cost blow out might have still delivered tangible benefits.

Let’s consider an example of a new pedestrian bridge across a busy highway. The original project was justified on the basis that there would be steps for the fit and active, a ramp for cyclists and a lift for the infirm or parents with children in buggies.

Over the course of the build, various issues are discovered which make the lift difficult to install, perhaps the government architect designed the lift shaft too small, and a decision is made to drop the requirement for the lift.

Perhaps there’s a dispute about the access to the piece of land where the ramp is to be built. The requirement for this is also dropped.

In the meantime, the supplier argues they bid on good faith, incurred considerable costs in preparing to install the lift and ramp and should therefore not suffer reduced fees.

The project continues, the bridge is built and the supplier is paid. Immediately following the official bridge opening ceremony, mothers with buggies, kids on bikes and elderly people with walking sticks are faced with the choice of a difficult stair climb or taking their chances crossing the road between gaps in the traffic.

Why did this happen?

If incompetence, then we would find a thoughtless architect, a useless contract drafter and a government project manager who was unable to plan and track critical activities.

If corruption, we might find many of the same layers of incompetence but perhaps one of the people in a key role was somewhat more deliberate in their lack of diligence.

Bill’s Opinion

For those of you who have been paying attention, this is a follow on revelation from this situation.

5 Replies to “William of Ockham’s First Law of Government Projects”

  1. Amateurs. That only lifts the supplier’s profit from say ten per cent to twenty. The way we do it is to issue a tender for, say, school books. After a rigorous and transparent adjudication process (not) the tender is issued to an enterprise in which our spouse or other close relation holds a controlling interest. This yields one hundred per cent profit because the school books are never delivered.

    1. Yes, and I’m sure that goes on too, but you’d need to bribe the auditors to get away with it.
      This particular fraud is quite clever because it relies on someone proving the perpetrator is intelligent; probably one of the harder tasks when dealing with government employees.

      1. Our auditors stand in line begging bowls in hand to get these kinds of lucrative audits. Google Gupta KPMG. Nobody actually ticks anything anymore. They only come to your premises for the end of audit business lunch. Good governance means having a relative of the President as non-executive chairman.

    2. Wasn’t there a Democrat mayor who did just that not long ago? Some healthy eating series for children – thousands printed, sold to cronies, and then left rotting in warehouses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.