About five minutes into ABC’s Four Corners investigation into the National Broadband Network (NBN) program on Monday evening, I realised that once again, we weren’t talking about the real issues of large government project failure.
The discussion about whether fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) is the correct short-term option when fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) is clearly the gold standard, is an important one to have.
However, the much bigger question is, regardless of which one the government chooses to undertake, do the people entrusted with leading it have the skills to do so? The answer, based on what we’ve seen so far and ignoring the political rhetoric and inevitable backside covering, is no.
‘We had a great plan, had a great vision, but missed that opportunity’, said communications consultant Paul Budde on the Four Corners program.
Yet there was no solid business case on which to build the plan in the first place. Once they had the plan, it changed before they’d even started. The vision may have been a good one, but the planning was definitely long-sighted.
As with the Census fail, Technology One debacle at Brisbane City Council, and the troubled Perth Children’s Hospital project, reports are created and media interviews undertaken, yet they focus on problems with technology not the competencies of the people who are accountable.
In his 2015 report Learning from Failure, Peter Shergold investigated why large government projects fail, said that reading project reviews was ‘a dispiriting exercise’. He went on to say that ‘too often there remains a tendency to focus on compliance and not performance.’
We saw a good example of that on Four Corners as communications Minister Mitch Fifield reeled off a supercilious list of pre-prepared facts that demonstrated that they were doing everything they could do with the resources they had to work with. What he should have been focusing on was the poor performance of those in charge.
When the Coalition government reviewed the project (at great expense) in 2013, they reset the project, its timelines and costs and committed to getting it delivered by 2016.
But what was missing from this was how the people would change their behaviours, how they’d work together and how they’d manage the inevitable risk that comes with undertaking a project of this size.
Progress in the last three years since the Coalition took up office has nothing to do with the previous Labor government or the initial plan put together by Mike Quigley and his team. But when big government projects fail, it’s almost inevitable that what we see is finger pointing and historic blame, rather than humility and accountability.
How refreshing would it have been for the prime minister to have said: ‘We got it wrong. When we replanned the NBN project in 2013, we didn’t have the right leadership that understood the issues that we faced.
“We didn’t make the right decisions at the right time or take the time to plan the project to the level of detail it required. We haven’t learned from the failures of the past and as the ultimate owner of this project on behalf of the Australian people I’m deeply sorry. We intend to stop this project with immediate effect, revisit the business case, replan the project and come back to the public in nine months with a commitment to completing this project in the right way.’
While the general public and corporate Australia would rightly throw their arms in the air in exasperation, there would be a sense of relief that honesty had prevailed and that the government - for once - was doing the right thing to get the project delivered.
However, the prime minister did not say this. Instead he continued to set the example of what poor leadership looks like in large government projects, which means that things aren’t going to change any time soon.
Colin Ellis is the author of the upcoming book The Project Rots From The Head and is an award-winning international speaker and trainer. He works with organisations around the world to transform the way they deliver projects. You can find out more about him at www.colindellis.com.
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