In an age of austerity the UK Government’s capacity to appraise potential investments for their capacity to deliver, affordability and value for money is more important than ever. In an effort to improve this core skill, on 1 May 2014 HM Treasury and the Welsh Government are launching their Better Business Cases (BBC) Accreditation. The qualification is a welcome step forward that will provide some much needed guidance and consistency to business case development across government. However, to deliver real improvements in investment appraisal skills across government, the accreditation must be supported by a structured programme developing ‘on the job’ experience.
The BBC course and examination are based on The Five Case Model: the UK Government’s best practice approach to planning spending proposals and enabling effective business decisions. The guidance provides a step by step guide to developing a business case that sits alongside HM Treasury’s Green Book. The qualification’s roll out has striking similarities to the launch of the PRINCE® project management qualification. The syllabus will be set by the Government with the training and exam being delivered via private sector providers. Sharon White, the Second Permanent Secretary at HMT Treasury who is leading the accreditation launch, will no doubt be hoping to replicate the success, in volume terms at least, of PRINCE2®; the qualification is now the world’s most popular project management qualification with one million exams taken globally.
However, for the qualification to deliver real improvements in investment decision making and delivery it must avoid becoming a theoretical exercise, to pass an exam – a criticism that many have levelled at PRINCE 2. Instead, it must focus firmly on putting the qualification into practice. Many accountancy and engineering qualifications successfully combine theory and practical experience and a similar approach should be adopted with the BBC. This would mean that students would be required to develop a portfolio of relevant work on different projects across government to provide practical experience to sit alongside their theoretical knowledge. Students would need to gain experience in the five business case disciplines; this would include reviewing and developing financial models, working in a commercial team on a live procurement, developing implementation plans for a major projects as well as traditional civil service roles in policy and strategy. The qualification would provide an excellent foundation to graduates joining the civil service with an interest in major projects and could be offered as an alternative to the existing specialist schemes for economists, statisticians and accountants. This model would support the broader civil service up-skilling agenda which is seeking to develop genuine experts in specialist areas.
There will be those that question whether business case development warrants its own specialist training. This scepticism is misplaced. In May 2013 the Government published its first ‘Major Project Authority Annual Report’. The list of 191 major projects, large scale investments and innovative commercial models dwarf anything the private sector does in their scale and complexity. Developing the widely debated economic case for High Speed Two or setting out the commercial model for the Government’s £3 billion Green Investment Bank are far from straight forward. Real experience and technical expertise are required to develop a coherent and robust business case for these complex projects. Practical experience would also help avoid mistakes being repeated: issues such as VAT implications and balance sheet treatment of assets are frequently missed in large projects until the final approval stage leading to delays at the back end of projects.
The launch of Better Business Case Accreditation should be seen as progress but must be accompanied by a requirement to develop practical experience as well as theoretical knowledge. The case for investing in business case skills is clear with the need to deliver more for less from increasingly rationed government investment. The increased level of scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office of recent business cases such as High Speed Two has also provoked a change of attitude amongst Senior Civil Servants. Business cases are no longer viewed simply as internal ‘hoops to jump through’ but fundamental, and legitimately public, foundations of any major project.
Rosie Boorne is a government expert at PA Consulting Group
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