Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Project Management Consultancies in government works

It has now become mandatory for Government programs and projects, of both Centre and States, to insist that implementing agencies monitor the works being executed under these programs using project management softwares or consultants. An impression has gained ground that the magic wand of "project management consultancy" (PMC) will help us overcome the perennial problem of execution delays and attendant cost over-runs. However, I am inclined to believe that such "best practice" approaches which see PMCs as a magic shot to expediting project works are destined to fail.

PMCs, as the name suggests, are for managing projects and programs. But most regular government programs consists of numerous works, scattered in different locations, often bundled into a single tender package. For example, a water supply scheme (say, part of the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Scheme) consists of pipeline networks in different locations and storage reservoirs; an electrification project (like the RGGVY) would involve laying lines, erecting transformers and sertting up sub-stations; a slum development project (like JNNURM) would consist of roads, drains, water and sewerage lines; a rural housing project (like IAY) will include constructing small house units at different locations; a minor irrigation project will consist of small check dams, field channels, and dug-out ponds at different locations; a primary school infrastructure project (like SSA) will consist of small school buildings, toilets, and mid-day meal kitchens at many locations.

Each of these projects will consist of tens of small works, often costing no more than a few lakhs, spread over a large geographical area. Monitoring these works using the conventional PERT, CPM and GANTT charts is cumbersome to the point of being bureaucratese. The transaction costs involved in using these monitoring systems are too huge to make them almost irrelevant and even detrimental for such projects. Peddlers of such monitoring techniques most often mistake these projects for big roads, irrigation structures, power generating stations, water and sewerage treatment plants which are amenable to such monitoring.

Smart quantitative monitoring techniques will always come up short when measuring the progress of such works. They require more qualitative approaches that seek to alert the decision makers to deficiencies and omissions that are likely to come in the way of speedy executing of these individual works. And there are critical tasks for each of these small works, whose expedition dictates the pace of their completion. Qualitative approaches also pre-supposes the field presence of more capable and qualified personnel, as opposed to the regular data collectors used by PMCs.

The utility of PMCs, especially in such works, arises from the fact it serves as an independent mechanism for collecting information about the physical progress of these works. Given the nature of these works, beyond monitoring the mobilization of material and labour and quantifying the work done, PMC's role in identifying the critical paths and in proper sequencing of these works are of secondary importance. Of importance are also issues like whether statutory readings have been done, check measurements taken, bills processed and payments done.

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