Jumping on the Olympic bandwagon

23 August 2012

The race to find Olympic metaphors – some more strained than others – is as competitive as the last lap of the 5000 metres. But even without asking whether the performance of Team GB offers useful guidance for Team GO on reviving the economy, there are some rather more direct lessons to be learned. Here are some immediate thoughts.

1. Mayors make a difference
Institute for Government has argued that big cities need mayors – but their value is intangible. They can make complex relationships work. They can get governments to move in support. They can act as figureheads for their city in a way an indirect council leader cannot. Boris was a big winner from the Games – from taking on Mitt Romney to getting stuck on a zipwire– but so was the role of Mayor. 32 – or even five – borough leaders taking it in turns to make the opening speech would not have had the same impact.

2. Quangos can deliver

Derided by ministers as “inefficient and unaccountable”, it was quangos who delivered the Games success. The Olympic Delivery Authority is an executive NDPB – with its own very well paid chief executives – recruited into the public sector to do a specific job. And the stunning performance of Team GB was down to another quango – UK Sport – which was separated out from Sport England to be able to focus on elite sport. Interestingly the Coalition’s initial quango proposals proposed the remerger of these two bodies – without producing any evidence that this would enhance either elite or grassroots sport. Both ODA and UK Sport had clear goals and clear responsibilities – something we found was too rare for many less exposed ALBs.

3. Private-public partnerships can work too
Among all the rows about G4S, the Games were in many senses a triumph of outsourcing. LOCOG itself is a private company (albeit a very strange one) and the Games were delivered through (mostly) smart contract management.

4. But the public sector was an important source of resilience
That said, there were critical moments when only the public sector could step in and manage the risks. First when the bid budget was shown to be horribly underestimated. Second, when the global financial crisis meant that the private finance was not forthcoming for the athletes’ village. And third, when the forces needed to step in to fill the gap left when G4S failed to deliver.

5. Ministers matter too – but need to know their place
Once the bid was won, ministers (and civil servants) needed to secure the budget, set up structures, set objectives – and then create a protected space where those charged with delivering could get on and do it. It might not have always been that way – in the case of the Millennium Dome, ministers were reputedly much more “hands-on” on the detail both of management but also in securing sponsorship and deciding on content. Better to let Danny Boyle do the opening ceremony – not a Cabinet Committee.

6. Continuity, continuity, continuity
Government processes had to change with a clear and non-negotiable deadline. Normal optimism biases had to be checked at the door. But as well as the hard deadline, there was an amazing continuity of personnel on the Olympics – something seen to rarely on many government projects and an oft cited cause of failure.

7. It’s worth learning the lessons
These are just some off-the-cuff thoughts in the reflected afterglow of a fantastic Games. But governments are traditionally terrible at knowledge capture. So before all the people who pulled off the Games are scattered to new roles and new continents,the Institute for Government is working with the Government Olympic Executive to capture the lessons of the Games for managing big, complicated projects. Watch this space.

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Comments (2)

  1. Thom on 23 August 2012 at 5:27 pm

    This is interesting, and I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. However, you don’t mention that the project went 4x over-budget – to what extent does that impact upon your argument?

  2. Jill Rutter on 28 August 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I do actually mention it obliquely (ie the effective bailout from govt when the first budget by the bid team was found to be horribly wrong). But you are right – that is the big reservation about the whole enterprise

    most of the people I am talking about here were largely assembled when the new budget was in place. But there is an important story (which we will want to try to get into) on how the bid was allowed to go forward and sold to the Cabinet) on such an unrealistic initial estimate – and what were genuine underestimates and what was real rescoping to bring in additional benefits (am assuming NAO has gone over this a number of times).

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