What are the key characteristics that set Government projects apart from their private sector counterparts?

It is not uncommon for project managers to go through their entire career delivering projects exclusively in the private sector.

A project manager with strong project fundamentals should – theoretically – be able to deliver a project successfully in either sector, however many PMs will never give public sector projects serious consideration or they may be overlooked when competing with project managers who have prior Government project experience.

The delivery of projects in the public sector can be extremely nuanced. First time project managers can often be brought undone due to this lack of experience even if they are very experienced project managers in the private sector.

So is the delivery of public sector projects more challenging and if so, what are the key characteristics that set them apart from their private sector cousins?

No Governance Shortcuts

Project governance is an essential component of any project. In the private sector, the level of governance ‘imposed’ upon a project can often be influenced by the organisation’s project delivery maturity or, more often than not, the regular availability of senior executives to either attend steering committees etc or focus on the project.

This can give rise to projects being delivered with a lighter touch of governance than was originally planned, giving the project manager certain freedoms.

Within the public sector, however, the governance structure and processes are more strictly adhered to from the senior executive down, including consistent attendance at meetings, approval processes, construction and timely delivery of reporting packs and so on.

This is especially true for the large programs. A project manager who does not get on top of the overall governance demands of the project and put in place and then follow the mandated procedures will quickly be found wanting.

The Logistics Will be Challenging – Always

It’s critical that the project manager quickly comes to grips with the various processes required to run Government projects, such as:

Within the private sector, there is often a significant amount of flexibility, particularly with delivering critical projects, when addressing the day-to-day needs of the project. Within Government projects, there is usually one correct path and few, if any, shortcuts. Adding to the complexity, however, is that the correct path is often difficult to discern.

For a project manager to be successful, they need to either fully understand the correct procedures in detail or engage experienced team members, like coordinators, who have the required knowledge. The focus on project hygiene is critical to any project running smoothly; from the business case onwards through to delivery.

The Upside – Your Funding Won’t be Cut! 

It’s true: one of the upsides of the strict adherence to governance and processes within government projects is that, once in place, the funding for projects is protected to a far greater extent than within the private sector.

Whilst it may often be a longer and more complex route to funding approval, once in place, it is typically maintained throughout the duration of the project.

Unlike private sector projects, government project funding is less at the mercy of external impacts from management re-organisations, merger and acquisition activity, or senior executives changing their mind on priorities mid-project.

Risk Management is Not Optional

Management of risk in a government project takes on new meaning and its influence can be seen throughout all aspects of the project.

Whether it’s a lengthier sign-off process for funding or general approvals, regular internal assurance scrutiny, greater governance requirements or more rigorous testing – in terms of types of testing and depth – the management of risk is omnipresent for government projects. A strong and sustained focus on risk management throughout the life cycle of the project is not optional for government projects if the project manager wants to be successful.

Straddling Both Worlds Requires Some Essential Modifications

The points above are not exhaustive but are a good snapshot of some of the key aspects of how government projects are different from their private enterprise cousins. Government projects may not be more challenging, but they are very nuanced and that requires a different approach.

Good project managers should still theoretically be able to straddle both worlds and be successful, but they will need to modify their way of working as required when moving into government projects, particularly if it is for the first time.

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