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Project management and public management – two sides of the same mirror

By Dr Steven Parker, Lecturer in Management, PuLSE, FBL

Before my move to the Open University, I taught project management in a politics and public policy department at another university. I was surprised about my colleagues' lack of knowledge - and even fear and prejudice - about project management. The key difference between project management and general management is that project management focuses on a final deliverable within a defined timespan and applies to implementing public policy and management. Some colleagues were surprised that it was taught in my previous department, but there is a comfortable fit between the two disciplines.

Perhaps I was naïve when I took the project management baton. At an academic conference, a delegate stated that when he started his PhD, he was given three pieces of advice: (1) always keep on the good side of your supervisor; (2) keep your mouth shut in team meetings, and(3) don't offer to teach project management … or you will never get rid of it!

But, as a public management scholar, I am increasingly convinced that project management and the motivation to improve the public realm are closely related. No doubt, some colleagues will disagree with me as they think project management is principally a managerial and technical discipline, in contrast with public policy and management with their focus on the public interest and social justice. This observation could not be further from the truth. For me, project management is a sociotechnical subject focusing on processes and tools, as well as people and society.

Many conceptual frameworks and tools used in project management, public policy, and public management are similar: stakeholder management and consultation, understanding the strategic environment, planning frameworks, power-interest matrices and evaluation tools. As a public management scholar (and previously a local government officer), I know the relationship between public policy and planning is integrated. An example is a recent project in Scotland, ‘Tackling Poverty in Renfrewshire, ' which the UK Association awarded Project of the Year for Project Management. This project provides a persuasive example of the relationship between project management and the public realm with its focus on vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Internationally, an initiative called Project Managers Against Poverty involves volunteer project managers to help reduce poverty in the UK and worldwide. This includes project managers working on health, water and sanitation projects funded by foreign governments.

There has also been criticism from the project management side on the overemphasis on the technical view. Two Danish academics - Geraldi and Soderlund - argue that project management research needs to be informed by a broader range of theoretical perspectives. They argue project management is about more than just applying project tools and methods, for example, Gannt charts and PRINCE2. They state that project management practices also need to be understood and interpreted critically, just like any other human activity, as they will involve negotiation and power between groups of people. Twenty years ago, Bent Flyvbjerg argued that power and governance are central components of project management and public policy. This is described in his classic book on Aalborg in Denmark, where he applies critical theory to a case study of city transportation.

With their interest in how projects can empower but are also sites of power and tension, these scholars open new avenues for researching the relationship between public policy and management and project management and offer a bridge between the disciplines. For me, Geraldi and Sunderland’s most important observation is that project management can emancipate and empower citizens by fronting up to what is unjust and challenging the status quo. However, they focus less on how state projects can damage the social fabric or repress citizens when public policy goes wrong. This could be flipped to one of disempowerment, exposing the legacy of a project that was envisaged to empower but, in fact, undermined social justice or increased inequality. This is seen in a recent focus on how projects can damage society, and it may be that, on occasion, voluntary sector projects are a response to failed or dysfunctional government initiatives.     

Furthermore, project management also links to public management through ethical practice. For example, the UK public services sector has been typically guided by Nolan’s principles, including integrity, honesty and leadership. Such principles will be equally relevant for state project managers as other state employees. Still, suppose project managers are members of professional project management associations (such as the Association of Project Management in the UK or the Project Management Institute in the USA). In that case, they will additionally be required to subscribe to project management codes of ethics and professional conduct.

This quest for emancipation resonates with the voluntary sector’s aspiration to change and improve society by independently challenging and applying state legislation through projects. There has been recent research on project management, local government and the public sector. However, one area that has been neglected is the critical focus of the relationship between the voluntary sector, public services design, and project management. A cursory view of Google and Google Scholar identifies some limited training in project management in the voluntary sector. However, there are few academic articles on project management and the voluntary sector, but only in passing. Furthermore, there has been little emphasis on public management, co-creation, public leadership and social projects.                       

Finally, my initial scepticism about teaching project management has changed to a position where it has enhanced my understanding of public policy and public management. For experts in public management, the main challenge to project management is prejudice arising from unfamiliarity with the subject matter and the misunderstanding that it is only a technical discipline. I urge those specialising in public management to reflect on the role of project management.


11th November 2022