Making the Games – how future major government projects can learn from success

22 January 2013

127 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, coaches and organisers were rewarded with New Year’s honours. The figure is unprecedented in the history of the list and emphasises the status and success of the Games. The roles of those honoured acknowledges the Games not just as a sporting success, but as a successful major project – with organisers including Lord Coe, LOCOG senior leaders Jackie Brock-Doyle and Jean Tomlin and Government Olympic Executive (GOE) Director-General Jeremy Beeton all in receipt of honours. Deserved as these awards are though, Making the Games, a new Institute for Government report out today, argues that the best way for government to honour London 2012’s success is to learn from it.

Making the Games tells the story of London 2012 – from the early days of the bid when London trailed behind frontrunner Paris, to the evening before the opening ceremony. The research is based on interviews with over 60 London 2012 leaders including Lord Coe, Dame Tessa Jowell, Lord Deighton and Sir John Armitt. Our research shows that that the Games’ success did not happen by chance or luck. Rather, strong political commitment and cross-party cooperation; effective delivery bodies, public and private, and strong public-private relationships; world-class appointments and stability in key personnel; and painstaking planning and testing exercises all helped ensure a good Games. Our report sets out how future major government projects can learn from this success.

The first lesson is about prioritising the project rather than working through conventional, narrow departmental or sectoral lenses. Delivery bodies LOCOG and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) were co-located, and government departments worked closely rather than in the usual silos. Whatever the competing agendas, organisations and personalities, everyone involved in the Games was committed to success, with a sense that the failure of one element meant the failure of everyone.

Second, the project drew on people with track records of performance on similar projects not only to deliver but also to help government perform its intelligent client function. The search for people had to be worldwide to get the best people into key roles in ODA and in the GOE. The importance of having ‘world class’ people, with strong track records was paramount – and many of our interviewees emphasised that the current cap on public sector salaries that the Coalition has (partially) imposed would have prevented the recruitment of some of the people who were repeatedly identified as being critical to Games success. As critically, most stayed to see the project through to its conclusion.

Third, there was – after a rather shaky start – a realistic project budget that was managed transparently. A realistic budget and project plan were a necessary precondition for proper project management, and healthy contingency funds allowed for the public refinancing of the Olympic Village in the wake of the financial crisis. But the most important lesson here is the exceptional degree of transparency on reporting progress on the project and budget, by both ODA and GOE. This not only provided a basis for defusing potential criticism, and making clear that the project could stay within budget, but it also pre-empted the inevitable parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests that the team would otherwise have spent valuable time dealing with.

Finally, the Olympics benefited from dynamic political leadership from within government and also from the (then) newly created Mayor’s Office, and the project weathered changes of administration with unexpected ease. The project was allowed to thrive, protected from normal party politics. At least partly this was because an incoming government had a huge vested interest in taking over a project that was on track and adequately funded. But it was also because of political cooperation and continuity. Politicians of different parties worked together, putting the project first and allowing the opposition regular project briefings from officials. And politicians responsible for the Olympics were not reshuffled away from the project. Both Tessa Jowell and Hugh Robertson stayed with the project for its duration – regardless of whether they were in government or opposition.

Our report has other lessons too – on the effectiveness of arm’s-length bodies, the need for rigorous planning and testing, and the counterintuitive message to limit innovation.

Both government and opposition are now drawing on the talent that delivered the Olympics. LOCOG Chief Executive Paul Deighton’s first task as the new Commercial Secretary of the Treasury is to review the government’s national infrastructure plan. ODA Chair John Armitt is fulfilling a similar role for the Labour Party, chairing an independent review of how long-term infrastructure planning can be improved. Our report is designed to show how the Olympic stardust can be spread more widely into other projects.

 

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Comments (2)

  1. Mr Reasonable on 22 January 2013 at 5:19 pm

    It depends how you define success. If you men a major construction project was delivered on time yes, but what about all the other measures of success. Did it represent value for money? Debatable. At £9.3billion plus lots of other costs not from within the Olympics budget many would say it was a massive waste of money. Could the regeneration have been delivered at a lower cost – without a doubt. Do we have a satisfactory legacy for the main stadium No we don’t. Has it increased the take up of sport. No. Are sports facilities around the country closing. Yes. Did it attract in lots of tourists. No. With the greatest of respect I think this is very much a report about people patting themselves on the back. If you want to do a thorough lessons learned report start with what were the objectives at the outset, did they achieve those, has hosting the Olympics in the UK made the country a better place, has it achieved the participation increase targets, was it value for money. This is a classic post event rationalisation of the decision and that is most definitely where governments goes wrong time after time.

  2. Mike Smith on 29 January 2013 at 9:28 am

    As someone who has spent a lot of time over the past seven years liaising between the trade unions and the Olympic bodies, I thought that the twelve lessons with which this report concludes offered a good summary of what went right in the Olympics but had gone wrong with earlier major projects.
    But I also agree with the acknowledgement in the introduction that the research methodology, as well as the scale of the Games, meant that there were parts that the report did not reach.
    I would like to draw attention to the role of trade unions and the importance attached to good employment relations.
    This is acknowledged in reference to LOGOC putting in place procedures to deal quickly with any games time grievances. But it went far deeper than that.
    Unions were committed to the bid from the start. The exemplary safety record during the construction phase owed much to the regular liaison between the construction unions and the ODA and to the presence on the ODA board of Barry Camfield a former Assistant General Secretary of Unite.
    The commitment to the London Living Wage in the Principles of Co-operation agreed between the TUC, LOCOG and the ODA helped avoid under cutting by contractors or workers moving from job to job in search of better wages at Games time. Our volunteer protocol played a part in ensuring not only that volunteers were fairly treated but limited complaints about volunteers doing work that should have been done on a paid basis – problems frequently seen on other occasions.
    We are carrying forward our engagement through our liaison with the legacy company and also pressing the IOC to raise employment standards in sportswear supply chains, something on which London 2012 went further than any previous Games but on which much still needs to be done.
    The importance of good employment relations – fair treatment for workers – is perhaps the 13th lesson.

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