Making decisions in projects in the public sector

The PLP model as a guideline

By Tore H Wiik

Typical for modern project models is that they include project phases or project stages. Between the stages there are decision points or toll gates, in the execution phase sometimes even toll gates inside the stage. At a toll gate, the project steering role will do the required assessments needed to decide if the project should continue or not.

The steering role – or governing role- will normally belong to a project owner who may have allied with other stakeholders from the same organization, so that a steering group has been formed.

This modus operandi is beneficial in simple project environments and is characterized by:

  • The project exists within the boundaries of ONE organisation
  • There are good communication lines between the project manager and the project owner
  • There exists a basic agreement about the strategic direction for the organisation

In the public sector, this situation frequently is far more complex:

  • Several organisations participate
  • The project’s «principal» is at a distant location from where the project is executed
  • Political processes add complexity, stakeholders from various political groups with varying perceptions and expectations about the project are involved
  • Administration and political management are separated

Under such circumstances, a more advanced decision-making process for each toll gate will be necessary. The PLP-model, or the Project Leader Process, which is marketed by PLP Utvikling AS includes an efficient approach. The model was originally developed by the Norwegian SND (State Regional Development Fund), an organization that from 2004 was merged into Innovation Norway, also a public organization. The PLP-model was adapted to regional development projects. Such projects often exist in a mine field of several public organisations with varying stakes in each project. The model therefore differs from the relatively simple models used in the private sector. The PLP-model may seem more cumbersome, more formal and slower, but this is necessary in order to ensure wise consensus decisions.

The project owner in simple project models

In modern best project practices (like the PROPS model originally developed within the Ericsson company) the project owner is the person who has the authority to at any time start or stop his project, and the one who is responsible for the project’s business perspective. In addition, the project owner will approve the project plans. The starting point for this project ownership is the organisation’s CEO. This is because a project is typically based on the organisation’s strategy, and because the CEO (or a board of directors) under any circumstance will have the authority to start or stop any project. But in a large organisation, there is a practical limit as to how many projects the organisation’s leader can focus on.

The project owner should be a person, and not a group or a function in the organization. When a broader participation is required in the project’s steering role, the project owner may establish a steering group. In that case, the project owner will be the leader of this group.

The project owner in PLP

PLP reflects that projects in the public sector will have complex constellations of project owners. They may come from several public organisations, be geographically spread and have differing strategic interests. Since their contributions differ, we distinguish between A, B and C-owners. One of the A-owners is appointed the role of project principal. But this A-owner will rarely be a project owner according to best practices, since this owner in most cases will be an organization and not a person, and secondly, this owner will communication wise be far apart from the project manager.

The project will normally be executed on a day-to-day basis in a local line organization to which the project manager belongs. This may be in a government organization or a municipal organization. The PLP model solves the problem of the project owner and the project manager being far apart by establishing a local authorized deputy for the project owner; a person given the project role title of “project responsible”, PA. This project responsible will be the perceived project owner for the project manager and will be the principal’s representative within the line organization in which the project mainly is being executed.

Hence, the project owner will for most practical purposes be replaced by the project responsible within the boundary of the organization the project manager belongs to, and there will be an excellent communicational link between the two.

Compared to the simple model discussed initially where the project owner has a clear decisional power (albeit he may be overruled by an intervening CEO), the local project responsible has no real authority at the toll gates between each stage. He will, however, be responsible for a thorough assessment including the proposed decision. This assessment and proposal will be distributed to the principal (the A-owner) that will try to ensure a joint consensus decision in the steering group to which all the owners belong. At the end, the final decision will be handed over to the project responsible for execution.

This decision process may seem slow and cumbersome for those who are more familiar with an action oriented and more agile private company. But the systematic thoroughness is necessary in the public sector, that HAS TO BE more controlled by stable rules and procedures and must be considerably more concerned with how its decisions will influence the society and the environment.

In PLP each stage is a project

In addition to a more time-consuming decision process, this decision process will to a larger extent than in the private sector change and shape the project. The execution time of each stage will often be shorter than the duration of the decision process.

Hence, the term project stage is not used in PLP. Each stage is a project, and the project model includes a pre study project, a pre project and a main project following in a chain.
This does not prevent each of these three chain projects to be split into phases. Typically, both the pre project and the main project will be so extensive that each may be split into phases like assessment, preparation and conclusion with local decision points in between. In that case, the project responsible will have the deciding authority for the local decision points.

PLP used in the private sector

In the private sector we see an increasing number of projects that are “joint ventures” between several organisations. Then a traditional simple project model may fall short. A more advanced decision process, as in the PLP mode, may be a good solution.

Flexibility in the decision processes in PLP

In the public sector, there will be many instances of project life cycles where the recommended decision process will be too extensive. Several projects are simple, they may live outside a political mine field, and they may take place within one single organisation. Also, generic project models often will have different sub models for various project types. It is therefore possible within the PLP model to allow for simplified executions. In such simple projects, the role of the principal may be the chief officer (A-owner and only owner), who in turn will delegate the role of the project owner to a local project responsible.

Such flexibility is a normal adaptation when the organization has reached a satisfactory level of project maturity.

About the author:

Tore H Wiik, MSc, has been working on several projects both in the private and public sector and is the author of several research reports within the fields of acoustics, innovation, engineering and creativity. He is officially NOKUT-authorized (the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education) senior lecturer in project management at BI Norwegian Business School, and he has been assistant professor at Oslo Metropolitan University. He has his own consulting company specializing in projects and strategy.

He also has four patents in the fields of electronics and acoustics.