Successful project initiation in Defra: Prepare, protect, and promote

Sean McDaniel Joe Nolan Sophie Brotherton Burns Noura Bin Ishaq

By Sean McDaniel, Joe Nolan, Sophie Brotherton-Burns, Noura Bin Ishaq

Government departments operate in complex, high pressure environments with time-sensitive targets – and Defra is no exception. Meeting these targets, and positively impacting citizens’ lives, starts with successful project initiation.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) is home to a vast range of critical projects, all geared towards creating policies and strategies that improve and protect the environment. Achieving optimal outcomes means bringing stakeholders together, aligning priorities, and pulling in the same direction. But this is much easier said than done.

The scope and complexity of government projects can be daunting, and is further complicated by competing stakeholder priorities and the immense pressure to deliver. Within Defra and wider government departments, it is critical for both policy and delivery teams to work together effectively to address problem statements identified in a Project Initiation Document (PID). Project teams are keen to build momentum quickly, and demonstrate early delivery value. This starts right at the beginning, at the very initial stages. Get it wrong, and the project can face delays, misalignment, and disillusionment. Get it right, and the results speak for themselves.

People are paramount

Public sector organisations can struggle to initiate projects smoothly due to uncertainty, ambiguity, contractual obligations, commercial targets, conflicting priorities, and demand for rapid value. So, what does it take to coordinate these moving parts, and push towards strategic outcomes? Building on our previous research with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), we delved deeper into public section project initiation. Working closely with Defra’s Project Delivery Function, we led a series of interviews and workshops to gather real-world insight into successful project initiation.

Our resulting Project Initiation Lessons Learned Report, co-produced with Defra and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), drives best practice by providing tried-and-tested methodologies, principles, and tools. The report highlights five key lessons, each with clearly defined action points, to guide successful initiation. Across all recommendations, people are paramount. Placing people at the centre, and equipping teams with an adaptive mindset, enables programmes to progress despite complexity, demonstrating early value and building all-important buy-in. But how? Prepare, protect, and promote.

Prepare for uncertainty by bringing stakeholders together

Uncertainty and ambiguity are inevitable during the initial stages of any project or programme. It’s up to project leaders and managers to accept and manage this uncertainty, and help team members to feel secure enough to do the same. A firm understanding of different stakeholder priorities at the very beginning lays strong foundations for success, but as every project manager knows, these priorities are likely to change. Checking in with stakeholders throughout will identify changes and maintain cohesion, avoiding surprise U-turns or blind junctions in the route ahead.

However, with so many stakeholders involved in Defra projects, priorities are bound to conflict. This tension can be addressed by bringing stakeholders together, realigning aims, and pro-actively implementing clear actions. Calling on stakeholders to feed into and guide the project at regular intervals will create buy-in – a crucial theme in our interviews with Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) and Project Directors (PDs). The more that stakeholders feel they are part of the project, the more committed they will be to its success. And, when the direction shifts, they will be more likely to step up than to step away.

Protect project outcomes through effective resourcing

Many factors, including budget fluctuations and unclear project scope, make resourcing decisions hard. These resources include project-critical information, allocated funding, and appropriately skilled project team members. Given the fluid nature of priorities and focus areas, frontloading resource and building broad capacity early is essential. With contingencies in place and dependencies duly noted, project managers can protect capacity and support continuity.

To protect capacity throughout the often-opaque project lifecycle, the IPA’s Dynamic Conditions for Project Success recommend building a team with diverse skills, and committing to the continuous improvement of organisational capabilities. This will support effective resource allocation during initiation and beyond.

Promote success with a compelling vision

Our research into project initiation highlights the criticality of a compelling vision, communicated effectively to stakeholders and teams by leaders. A well-communicated vision creates unity and encourages open conversations about project progression. It builds confidence in leaders by establishing communication channels and reporting lines – especially when underpinned by robust governance frameworks.

This critical combination of visionary leadership, effective communication, and good governance is supported by research conducted by the APM. When asked to identify the most important drivers of project success, 88 percent of survey respondents cited effective governance – defined as clearly identified leadership, responsibilities, and reporting lines.

SROs and PDs are tasked with navigating competing targets, aims, priorities, and constraints, all while maintaining momentum. But, despite the complications and considerations that come with complex public sector projects, leaders can set teams up for success by putting people at the centre.

About the authors

Sean McDaniel
Sean McDaniel PA defence and security expert
Joe Nolan
Joe Nolan PA public sector expert
Sophie Brotherton Burns
Sophie Brotherton-Burns PA public sector expert
Noura Bin Ishaq
Noura Bin Ishaq PA public sector expert

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