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Offbeat: How not to manage a national project


Ever felt overburdened by a vast project management task? Getting everything done on time and on budget can be a headache.

Maybe we should take a leaf out of the Learning and Skills Council book, and just not worry about it until it's too late. A new select committee report has heavily criticised the soon to be scrapped, 'demob-happy' quango after it emerged that hundreds of millions of pounds may be wasted as a result of 'catastrophic mismanagement'.

The criticism centred on a scheme to rebuild further education centres around the UK, but with a budget soon to be curtailed by impending recession, the committee accused the LSC of massively overshooting its funding capabilities. Colleges around the country called in designers and even pulled down existing buildings when their applications, some of them frankly audacious, were approved. However, the LSC had grossly overestimated its budget, and promised funding that it was unable to provide.

“The information coming through was that college after college was not just being rebuilt but that we were getting iconic buildings up and down the country,” said Phil Willis, chairman of the committee. “Someone needed to tell the emperor that the clothes weren’t there.”

The result is that a number of colleges had been left with piles of rubble after demolishing classrooms or facilities in anticipation of new ones being built. Others had spent considerable amounts of consultants and architects’ fees but had been left hanging by the LSC.

The quango management came in for serious criticism. And while it was noted that a culture of distraction had been bred by the constant shifting of government departments in recent months; with the Department for Education becoming the Department for Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (Dius) then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the comments of the committee were stinging. 

“It really beggars belief that such an excellent programme, which had showed real success in transforming the further education experience, was mismanaged into virtual extinction,” said Willis. “LSC didn’t notice as the total value of the projects it was considering began to overshoot the budget, and a review which could have prompted action was shunted around committees and policy groups.”

This staggering failure leaves 180 collage building projects on the table, with only 13 currently set to go ahead. Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “The LSC must assist any colleges placed in financial difficulty as a result of preparing, in all good faith and with due diligence, for a building project.”

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