Decide, commit and succeed (or fail) – but deciding and committing is a must
It was a Sunday morning at the end of February 2016, and I was reading my newspaper when my phone rang. It was a call from the then newly appointed Member of the Executive Council (“MEC”) responsible for Human Settlements in Gauteng, Paul Mashatile. He wanted me to consider the possibility of working with him in the Gauteng Department of Human Settlements (“the Department”) to implement a sort of a turnaround strategy following years of underperformance in the delivery of housing opportunities.
Coincidentally, I had already been recruited by one of the service providers to the Department, a professional resources team (“PRT”) that had been shortlisted for the corridor profiling initiative. This PRT had recruited me to form part of its consultants for the corridor profiling initiative. Following interactions with the then Acting Head of Department (“HoD”), the scope of this PRT was extended to include the setting up of a project management office (“PMO”). In this regard, I attended my first meeting in my capacity as the PMO programme director on 1 March 2016.
During the 2015/16 financial year, it became apparent that the Department was experiencing serious service-delivery challenges. These challenges appeared to be a direct result of the key governance and project management pillars of the Department being weak, uncoordinated and unstructured. Most importantly, there was no leadership. I am on record as having described the executive management team (“EMT”) as being “pedestrian” in its approach to work and its responsibilities as the custodians of the task of delivering housing and sustainable human settlements in Gauteng.
One of the most serious impacts of these challenges was the Department’s inability to meet its housing delivery targets. Upon his appointment in February 2016, Paul Mashatile was not impressed with the meagre targets of less than 15 000 houses. He instructed that the PMO had to aim towards achieving 50 000 housing units, and thus the intervention was branded “Project 50K” (or “P50K”), as key levers to his strategic approach of reshaping the Gauteng Human Settlements delivery. Project 50K aimed to deliver 50 000 housing units – which marked a clear departure from the then approach of delivering housing opportunities (service stands and housing units) – by the end of the 2016/17 financial year.
The PRT was contracted for a six-month period, from July to December 2016, by the Department to deliver on an extended scope of work, despite the fact that the Request for Quotations (RFQ) that the PRT responded to was for a 12-month period. The main intent was to provide critical support that would assist the Department by establishing a PMO. I was assigned the role of programme director, colloquially referred to as head of the PMO. The new approach did not mean that the Department would stop implementing the projects driven from the National Key Indicators, but it rather demanded the Department be transformed into a high-performance, project management-driven organisation that is agile, in order to be able to respond to this revised strategic approach.
Emerging strategic perspective
A new strategic perspective had evolved that maps out the key priorities that should act as the driving levers for bringing about significant changes to the performance of the Department. Given that the departmental business plan must always reflect its strategy and annual performance plan, its overall strategic perspective for the period to 2019 had to be guided by the following socio-political imperatives and priorities that emerged as critical:
- Winding down all legacy projects to completion by 2019, as per the Gauteng Premier’s directive that the Department should stop small-scale, sporadic, low-impact projects and focus on bigger-scale and high-impact programmes
- Scaling up the implementation of mega projects – being higher-density, integrated human settlements with a minimum of 10 000 units per project, with features that include mixed income, mixed land use, mixed tenure and mixed typologies
- Beneficiary management and administration – including the centralization of the customer support centre and the waiting list; the speedy processing of township establishment and title deeds; the implementation of innovative systems to improve responsiveness; and consistent following up on feedback from the Premier’s Ntirhisano initiatives
- Short-term interventions in informal settlements and hostels, including on such matters as the provision of: water; sanitation; electricity; public lighting; waste management and cleanliness; and early childhood development (ECD) facilities
- Urban-renewal programme aimed at supporting revival and regeneration of the inner-city (CBDs) and mining towns
Approach and methodology
The PMO’s overall approach and methodology were underpinned by the following key aspects:
- Providing professional, efficient and effective support to the Department
- Engaging resource people with the appropriate experience and expertise to undertake its work
- Developing, implementing and maintaining all PMO-required operational processes and systems necessary for providing a speedy, high-quality support service
- Building into its work possible and feasible “on-the-job capacity development” of public sector officials it works with
The PMO team of professionals and experts was structured into eight main work streams to provide a holistic, end-to-end service required by the scope of definition of work. These eight work streams were as follows:
- Work stream 1: Provide focused support to clear blockages and improve efficiency
- Work stream 2: Project pipelining and packaging for the MTEF period
- Work stream 3: Spec, procure, pilot and implement a beneficiary management system
- Work stream 4: Office of the HOD operations improvement processes
- Work stream 5: SCM operations improvement processes
- Work stream 6: Spec, procure, pilot and implement a project management system
- Work stream 7: Contractor incubation programme
- Work stream 8: Facilitate the establishment and approval of a PMO
Each work stream had a leader who was responsible for ensuring that qualitative deliverables were provided and within the agreed timeframes. The PMO team members worked closely with departmental officials at different levels and with other service providers to fast-track various elements of their work that directly impacted on the delivery of the 50 000 housing units (“P50K”). As such we collaborated with, and leveraged, existing information, skills and expertise when required and wherever possible. In this way, we ensured integration and avoided a duplication of efforts and a waste of resources.
Typically, information management was the lifeblood of the core business of the PMO. The cycle of activities that involved the acquisition of information from one or more sources, and the custodianship and distribution of that information to those who needed it for decision-making, was undoubtedly critical to the work of the PMO. For the PMO to succeed in developing, recommending and implementing evidence-based, carefully thought through interventions to the projects in the department, it needed tight information management strategies. The quality and accessibility of the information have a determining effect on how invaluable it is for decision-making purposes.
It should also be noted that a PMO steering committee was in place for the period March to September 2016. The steering committee held weekly meetings and was chaired by a deputy director general (“DDG”) of the Department. The steering committee provided strategic direction and support to the PMO.
The PMO presented progress reports and key governance points to be noted, and identified key risks and issues that it needed strategic decisions on. This approach facilitated the provision of guidance and speedy decision-making on key issues.
Sadly, given the pressure the PMO was imposing on the departmental officials to perform, by the end of September 2016, the participation of the departmental officials in the PMO steering committee had literally diminished to zero – the PMO and its experts were by then meeting all by themselves with no government official in attendance. In other words, the Department simply ignored the PMO and reverted back to its old ways.
The MEC had to step in and chaired fortnightly meetings of the PMO, and the departmental officials grudgingly came back to the process. But most of these meetings degenerated into slanging matches between the departmental officials on one hand, and the PMO on the other. There were serious disagreements on performance information. There were even more contestations on what had to be done, and the writing was on the proverbial wall – the PMO project was dead.
Methodological objectives and interventions
Notwithstanding the obstacles, the PMO persisted with the tasks at hand. The PMO’s approach and methodology for collecting, processing, analysing and disseminating the work-stream information remained of critical importance to the success of the interventions proposed for implementation. In the main, the PMO’s methodological objectives were to do the following:
- Subject the legacy projects and mega projects to an external review independent of the project implementation teams
- Provide high-level, ongoing strategic input to align the mega projects’ log frames, designs and operational plans
- Ensure that strategic decisions about mega-project conceptualisation through to implementation were taken timeously and efficiently
- Determine to what extent critical success factors of performing legacy projects were being institutionalised across the Department system – within and between the regions – as these would go a long way to contributing towards the achievement of its set targets
- Determine what resources were required and/or deployed to help the legacy projects perform
- Determine the extent to which sustainability principles and practices were built into the rollout of all projects
- Undertake a robust review of project performance across each region and assess the reasons for levels of performance
- Determine budgetary and finance implications for the medium- to long-term period, as well as the related decisions that had to be made about the allocation/deployment of these resources to legacy projects on the basis of their performance
- Examine how all projects were influencing service delivery in human settlements and in turn advance the government’s transformation agenda in general
PMO interventions revisited
In its various monthly reports, the PMO identified and chronicled factors that contributed significantly to poor project performance. These observations were based on the evidence-based data the PMO had collected over many months using a variety of strategies to pull it together, collate it, analyse it and verify it with the regions, quality assurance, PRTs and contractors.
In October 2016, the PMO submitted a memorandum to the Department, which detailed a battery of interventions that would have made a significant difference to project performance had they been approved and implemented by the Department.
During November 2016, the PMO spent a great deal of time tightening the recommended interventions and, most importantly, attempting (without success) to ensure that the recommendations and proposed interventions were institutionalised through the business plan and annual performance plan process. The key recommendations and interventions proposed in the December 2016 closing report were:
- The current contractors would not be able to reach the agreed targets by the end of the financial year at the rate at which they were performing – or rather, not performing
- Our assessment was that a relatively good contractor had been able to do on average 150 houses per month
- By implication, between then (December 2016) and the end of financial year (January and February 2017, as December is generally considered a dead period in the construction industry), the PMO assessment indicated that a relatively well-performing contractor would be able to deliver on average 300 houses
- The PMO specifically recommended that budget allocations be taken from the non-performing contractors and be allocated to contractors that were on the new database of service providers
- The PMO further recommended that the performance of all contractors, current and new, should be the key determining factor on whether or not they got allocations for the next financial year of 2017/18
Needless to say, these recommendations were never implemented by the Department.
Indecision and non-committal aftermath
At the stage of close-out of the initiative in December 2016, the PMO’s assessment of the various aspects of the Department’s achievement of its objectives was as follows:
- The Department would not be able to achieve the delivery of 50 000 houses, which included legacy projects and mega projects, in the financial year of 2016/17 as originally planned
- The Department had not achieved the envisaged 20 000 houses as a critical milestone for July 2016
- At the then rate of delivery, the Department would most likely be able to deliver 15 000 houses by the end of the 2016/17 financial year (it is important to note that this was more than double what was achieved in the previous 2015/16 financial year)
The departmental intervention task team
By the end of the 2016/17 financial year, because of a combination of various factors – not least the lack of executive support, but also because of the objective fact that the contract had expired – the work of the PMO had come to a grinding halt.
The problems of lack of performance were abundantly clear and quantified, notwithstanding the fact that the budget had been spent, but less than 50% of the performance targets had been achieved. The Department remained unmoved – all was well and good, life had to go on.
The MEC (Paul Mashatile) had to pull another trick from his proverbial sleeve – on 10 May 2017, he issued me with a letter of appointment as a member of the Department Intervention Task Team (“DITT”). This was a task team made up of two people – the other member was Mr Pascal Moloi, who at the time was CEO of the Housing Development Agency (“HDA”). The DITT was established in terms of the Public Finance Management Act (“PFMA”) Regulation 20.
This appointment embraced all functions, activities and duties that were reasonably necessary, incidental and ancillary to the scope and mandate of the DITT, as well as such other capacities and functions that may from time to time be assigned by the MEC, to the degree that these are generally consistent with the overall mandate of the DITT.
Accordingly, I was to advise the MEC on the remedies and relevant actions required to unblock all the persistent challenges that inhibit the Department’s performance. In this regard, the DITT’s scope and mandate would include:
- Assessing the status and progress of implementation of all recommendations made by the PMO in January 2017
- Considering the status and progress of implementation of all recommendations deriving from any other reports produced on behalf of the Department as part of the previous interventions the Department had undertaken to reverse the status quo
- Engaging all internal stakeholders and business units within the Department, with a view to providing advice on the implementation of the MEC’s directives
- Preparing a comprehensive report for the MEC reflecting the recommended remedial action and way forward, specifically with regard to conclusively addressing all the outstanding issues as identified
- Attending to any other matter assigned to the DITT by the MEC
The DITT would have all incidental functions and powers that would have been delegated by the MEC in his capacity as the executive authority, in order to enable the DITT to exercise those powers required to fulfil its role and exercise its function.
Towards the end of July 2017, the MEC issued a directive to the DITT to establish a “War Room”. The terms of reference under which the War Room was required to discharge its mandate included:
- Ensuring that delivery of housing was scaled up to produce 1 500 units per week and ensure R2.5-billion expenditure by 30 September 2017
- Receiving weekly reports from regions in order to diagnose all project delivery hindrances and challenges, and trouble-shoot these
- Facilitating meetings with other units in the Department as and when necessary to ensure effective support to human settlement delivery regarding supply chain, contracting, planning, beneficiary management and payment of contractors
- Providing weekly reports to HOD and MEC
I was appointed by the MEC as the chairperson of the War Room (a discussion on the success – or lack thereof – of the War Room will be the subject of discussion for another day).
Over and above the terms of reference, there were other functions and requirements of the War Room:
- Hold weekly meetings every Monday, with a schedule to meet all regions and implementing agents
- Make sure all regions submitted weekly performance reports by close of business on Thursday (these reports were to be signed off by regional heads)
- The CFO of the Department was to submit weekly reports on expenditure per region and per project, while ensuring that payments were done within 14 days of submission of invoice
- Other units in the department to submit reports as and when requested
The War Room would (and did) submit a report to the MEC and the HOD on a weekly basis:
- The report was to cover all interventions, as well as progress made in addressing such challenges
- The report was to cover progress on delivery of human settlement opportunities, as well as weekly expenditure
The War Room kept a set of minutes, action items and progress on decisions taken (most, if not all, recommendations of the War Room are still to be implemented by the Department).