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The lessons our infra push can learn from the IT sector

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India should use a capability creation model of project management to achieve its ambitious goals

On 1 February, many of us tuned in to listen to the budget speech. With the pandemic extending into 2021 and our economy having contracted severely, a strong fiscal push was eagerly awaited. Few minutes into the speech, one could not fail to notice the significant impetus given to the infrastructure sector to spur economic growth. Not only was it declared one of the six pillars vital for India’s growth story, it was also given a significant allocation of 5.54 trillion, a sizeable increase of 34.5% over the previous year’s budget figure. While one can applaud the announcement of 7,400 projects planned for the country’s 111 trillion National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP), the real challenge is for public agencies to execute these on the ground in a timely manner.

On 1 February, many of us tuned in to listen to the budget speech. With the pandemic extending into 2021 and our economy having contracted severely, a strong fiscal push was eagerly awaited. Few minutes into the speech, one could not fail to notice the significant impetus given to the infrastructure sector to spur economic growth. Not only was it declared one of the six pillars vital for India’s growth story, it was also given a significant allocation of 5.54 trillion, a sizeable increase of 34.5% over the previous year’s budget figure. While one can applaud the announcement of 7,400 projects planned for the country’s 111 trillion National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP), the real challenge is for public agencies to execute these on the ground in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, several of our infrastructure programmes face substantial delays. As per a recent report of the Union ministry of statistics and programme implementation on past projects, around 578 such projects were delayed and the average time overrun was more than three years. Implementation agencies, even if well-intentioned and motivated, often lack the knowledge and capability to execute at scale and on time.

Unfortunately, several of our infrastructure programmes face substantial delays. As per a recent report of the Union ministry of statistics and programme implementation on past projects, around 578 such projects were delayed and the average time overrun was more than three years. Implementation agencies, even if well-intentioned and motivated, often lack the knowledge and capability to execute at scale and on time.

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Several solutions can be conceived to improve execution speed: De-bottlenecking of financing needs, digital supervision and sustained monitoring of progress, innovation in procurement processes, etc. One can also argue that large-scale execution can only succeed by creating new entities that may hire private-sector talent. However, it would be impossible to achieve the scale of execution envisaged without upgrading the capabilities of numerous central and state government implementation agencies. Estimates suggest that more than 25,000 capable project managers will be required if we have to deliver the NIP.

Can we learn from how our information technology (IT) industry developed its capacity to execute at scale?

In the 1980s, The US Department of Defense developed its Capability Maturity Model (CMM), a five-level process improvement framework. It went on to become the hallmark of the tech industry and was wholeheartedly embraced by Indian IT companies. Every large company in India achieved CMM level 5 through dedicated efforts. Wipro, for instance, was among the first software service firms to achieve that mark in 1998. Infosys attained CMM level 5 in 1999, while TCS did so in 2004. The CMM framework continued to evolve over the next two decades, and the Indian IT industry worked towards reaching its highest level.

Similar models have existed in other industries and areas as well. The International Federation of Consulting Engineers, or FIDIC, for example, is a global representative body that defines best practices for consulting engineering and construction technology. FIDIC standardizes construction contracts, and has guidelines for risk management, integrity management and sustainability. Its standards have been embraced by many countries around the world.

India needs a model to drive step changes in the project execution capabilities of its implementation agencies. A unified Project Management Model (PMM) could help guide consistency in various critical functions undertaken by these agencies, such as detailed project report preparation, fund raising, private-public project execution, contracting, project supervision and impact assessment. Currently, each agency has its own processes either developed in-house or influenced by guidelines issued by ministries from time to time.

Several countries have already implemented such models to address project execution and skill development challenges faced by a government set-up. For instance, the UK government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority has established a Government Projects Academy to develop project delivery standards and an accreditation and training plan for government officers. Further, it has launched a Project Delivery Capability Framework that clearly articulates the competencies and subsequent development plans needed by such professionals. The US has a Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act to improve execution focus. Its key elements include the development of in-house capabilities through cross-government knowledge sharing, the introduction of formal career paths for project managers, and the role of senior leadership in capability development.

India also needs to: One, finalize a project management model together with states (to ensure wider adoption); two, launch a skilling and certification programme on the Mission Karamyogi platform for capability-creation efforts; three, involve existing top performers among project managers in the delivery of experience-based training and also plugging talent gaps with private sector recruits; four, devise a mechanism to identify, develop and accelerate the career paths of good project managers; and five, communicate actively with private-sector partners and other stakeholders on what’s expected of implementation agencies by way of consistency in project management practices.

While India’s NIP and budget outlay offer us a great start, we must upgrade the capabilities of implementation agencies by training at least 25,000 project managers to execute various projects. The infrastructure focus now needs to shift from ideas and proposals to getting the job done.

Suresh Subudhi & Shubhika Bilgrami are, respectively, managing director and lead knowledge analyst, BCG

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