Strengthening Project Organizations for Local Governments

Lucas Milrod
Catherine Petrick

For private-sector owner companies looking to improve capital project performance outcomes, strong project organizations that are appropriately designed and staffed to achieve their goals serve as a foundation for improving. The same is true for government and quasi-government agencies in charge of delivering and maintaining publicly funded assets. Granted, stakeholders’ goals and expectations differ with respect to private and public-sector capital projects. Whereas sponsors of private sector projects are motivated to use capital effectively to increase shareholder value, sponsors of public sector projects are focused on ensuring the capital allocated to deliver a project provides value to constituents. However, project sponsor demands to achieve cost and schedule
performance expectations are common to both sectors.

Recognized worldwide for its capital projects evaluations and research in the chemicals, refining, energy industries, and other capital-intensive processing sectors, IPA is now also helping a growing number of public-sector entities improve their capital project performance. One way public-sector entities engage IPA is to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the client’s project organization. One recent example of how IPA helped a client in the public sector make capital work harder for its internal and external stakeholders—public service personnel and local taxpayers—was by performing an organizational assessment of Sarasota County’s Capital Projects Department (CPD).

Located along Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sarasota County serves a population of more than 400,000, providing local public safety services; public works and utilities; a system of libraries and historical sites; public beaches, parks, and recreation centers; a local transit authority; and other general public services.

County leaders asked IPA to determine whether the CPD’s organizational design and staffing were sufficient to support the county’s projects portfolio demands. In 2019, the county had a portfolio of over 160 projects under the control of different departments, with a combined value of more than $170 million.

Lucas Milrod, IPA Deputy Director of Research, Organizations and Teams, explained that county administrators recognized the advantages of having a single organization, the CPD, set up to handle the county’s expansive projects portfolio. The idea was that this would enable them to leverage a single pool of resources and establish consistency in the way project work was done. The county’s leaders wanted to understand how the department could leverage project delivery efficiencies across the county’s entire portfolio to increase the overall success rate, Milrod explained. They had been successful in delivering some larger and more expensive assets, a new library among them. However, they had also experienced challenges in delivering projects, with some taking longer than expected to complete and costing more than initially anticipated.

IPA’s Analysis and Findings

IPA’s organizational assessment collected detailed information about the CPD from many angles. Data were collected via an organizational questionnaire sent to personnel in various agencies. In-depth interviews with Sarasota administrators were conducted to glean insights into their understanding of the CPD’s purpose, organizational structure, internal processes, and project practices. IPA also administered a survey to collect information and perspectives from the county’s capital project professionals and other functions responsible for effectively delivering projects.

IPA then set out to assess strengths and opportunities for improvement across key areas of organizational design: resourcing, organizational structure, work process, gatekeeping and governance, and, critically, commitment to improvement. IPA leveraged its proprietary databases to compare features of Sarasota’s CPD to organizations with similar portfolio characteristics. IPA’s project system database consists of observations from over 100 project systems responsible for executing global and domestic capital portfolios across a number of industry sectors.

High-level findings resulting from IPA’s assessment included:

  • County stakeholders genuinely recognize the advantages of having a dedicated group of project professionals to strengthen project performance
  • Though intended as a centralized project support group, project management inconsistencies from one department to the next are a likely cause of the variable project performance outcomes the county had seen
  • While some core project functions are adequately staffed (i.e., project and construction management), the county has opportunities to support existing personnel in other project functions

Targeted Recommendations Based on Shared Practices of Top Performers

As a product of our assessments, IPA provides clients with tailored, actionable recommendations from which to drive performance improvements.

For Sarasota County, this means contextualizing the findings into actions that can be implemented within the county and CPD to improve overall performance. Within CPD’s former setup, operations managers were assigned to each of the county’s owner department portfolios. As a result, project practices and performance expectations and outcomes varied. By implementing a truly centralized support system, the CPD is now able to identify and provide resources when needed, standardize practices, and establish key performance measures. More centralized organizations tend to have more consistent performance because they have better systems in place, IPA’s organizations and teams research has shown.

Additional recommendations for Sarasota’s CPD included:

  • Continue to build capability and influence of the CPD in executing Sarasota County’s capital projects
  • Ensure the units within CPD are approaching county capital projects consistently through a common work process and defined gatekeeping system; establish systems to routinely evaluate the effectiveness of these practices to facilitate organizational learning and support continuous improvement
  • Amidst future portfolio demands, supplement existing staff with additional owner and agency resources in key functions

Optimize the Staffing, Competence, and Structure of Project Organizations and Teams

With IPA’s databases and research, it is possible to determine whether staffing levels are sufficient across an organization for the performance of critical functions, including project management, lead engineering, and construction engineering. Organizational assessments provide decision makers in the public and private sectors with key insights into the foundational issues that need to be corrected to improve their organization’s project performance.

Click here for more on how IPA’s Organizations & Teams Group delivers unparalleled insights into what drives competitive organizations and successful teams.

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