I’m Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for the 30 hours free childcare project – the project to increase the free childcare entitlement from 15 to 30 hours for the working parents of three and four year olds.
As we come towards the end of what has proved to be a successful project – with 340,000 children in free 30 hours places - I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned. These are the 6 biggest lessons I’d share with others taking on their first big project delivery role.
1. Leading major projects is a form of leadership like any other
Taking on the role of SRO for the first time can be pretty daunting - there are high expectations around government major projects and we’ve all seen headlines about failures and fiascos.
Of course there are a lot of things that are different about delivering big projects, but being an SRO turned out not to be as different as I thought it might be from other kinds of leadership.
2. Being SRO is a hands-on delivery role
In previous roles at the Department for Work and Pensions, I learned a lot from being around major projects as a policy official and seeing at close hand how senior leaders dealt with all kinds of difficult delivery issues. That gave me a good insight into what effective delivery leadership looks like and helped me feel confident in deciding where to focus my attention when I became an SRO myself.
One of the most important skills is knowing when to dive in and when to stand back, and being confident in making that call.
We sometimes think of senior leaders as floating above everything - setting the overall direction, getting a team in place and then getting out of the way.
You do have to set direction and give people space to deliver, but sometimes you also have to get into the detail. When the pressure is on, or things seem to be going wrong, you have to understand what’s going on in your programme and be able to make, and justify, good decisions to help keep it all on track.
3. It’s all about relationships
Being SRO means that I’m ultimately accountable for making sure the overall programme is delivered. But in reality of course this was a huge team effort involving people from DfE, HMRC, local authorities, our contracted delivery partners and ultimately childcare providers.
As in any other situation, the human relationships between all the people involved were critically important.
When you’re working across several government departments or agencies, it’s really important to understand and appreciate the pressures that are driving the others you’re working with, as they may be quite different to your own.
I believe that a lot of the success of our programme came down to the effort of individual people and their local relationships: parents talking to their providers; our contracted delivery partner giving business support and advice to providers; local authorities and providers working together; and our very close working relationship with local authorities.
4. Having a proper programme structure and discipline is genuinely helpful
We worked hard to put in place good programme management so that we were really managing delivery, risks and dependencies and not just reporting on them.
This doesn’t necessarily come naturally for people who aren’t used to working in a project delivery environment, and there is often a bit of scepticism about the value of these ways of working.
But if you do it right, these practices can be really useful in helping you anticipate and deal with problems and make sure everything is progressing as it should be. Our programme manager did some really outstanding work on this front, really thoughtfully applying programme management disciplines in ways that were helpful to the team.
5. Good data is essential for effective delivery
The big challenge for a programme like this one is matching supply and demand of childcare places. The year before the programme went into live delivery, there was significant media speculation about whether we would manage to do that through the approach we were taking: would providers actually provide enough places, in time, to meet the demand we were generating?
We relied on 2 things to tell us whether we were on track and give us the confidence to hold our nerve under quite a lot of pressure: our pilots, which had showed us that the approach could work, and the data we tracked each day to tell us what was happening in each local authority area. That daily view of the data meant we could spot and understand problems early, understand what was going on in each area and intervene where necessary to keep things moving in the right direction.
6. Human stories about the impact of our work really helped
Some of the best moments in the programme came when we stopped to appreciate the impact our work was having on people’s lives.
Things really started to feel real when we started to see adverts for providers of 30 hours’ free childcare on the streets where we lived. We shared photographs of the adverts in the team, and we also shared stories about people who had benefited from the scheme whenever we heard them.
One example that sticks in my mind was a couple who had previously been working day and night shifts respectively, with one parent covering childcare while the other worked. They only saw each other at the handover times between their shifts. Because of 30 hours free childcare, they were able for the first time to work the same shift thereby enabling them to have time together as a family after work.
Overall I found my time as an SRO hugely challenging and rewarding. There’s nothing like seeing real life outcomes happening in real time. I'd encourage anyone considering it to take the leap and give major project delivery a go.