How 'Relational Project Management' can help local government deliver projects effectively
John Copps outlines how Relational Project Management can help local government officers manage complex projects around relationships and politics. A version of this article was first published by the MJ.
To risk stating the obvious, local government is a people business.
This is true from top to bottom: the shaping force of democratic politics, the responsibility to all residents, the care of vulnerable children and adults, and a workforce motivated by public service.
To reflect that, it needs tools and approaches that can manage the complexity that comes with local politics and relationships
Whilst this ‘people’ focus is usually a defining feature of councils’ visions, strategies and services, it can often go missing in the day-to-day business of project management.
Faced with pressure to deliver on time and to budget, ‘process’ often takes over at the expense of ‘people’. Take for example the projects that start with a clear sense of direction and good intentions, but turn into box ticking routines, ‘tasks for tasks sake’, and finger-pointing when milestones are missed. I’m sure many readers will know what I mean.
What is Relational Project Management?
Simply put, Relational Project Management puts human relationships at the centre of projects.
Over the last decade, Mutual Ventures has undertaken dozens of projects across local government, working with colleagues from children’s and adult services, place and economy, and corporate services. Relational Project Management was sparked by the realisation that relationships with and between colleagues, stakeholders and partners are what makes or breaks the success of all these projects.
Relational Project Management is about establishing and embedding the conditions to get the best out of people. It recognises successful outcomes rely on respectful, healthy relationships within the team, and a belief in resolving difficulties. The key is to have the whole project team and stakeholders onside, working for the same outcome, focused on their tasks, and enjoying themselves.
This underpinning ethos is similar to that of ‘relational practice’, an approach that is becoming widely used in social care and promotes relationships with families, colleagues and partners as the key to successful services. In local government, Leeds City Council and Camden Council are both well-known proponents.
What does it mean to manage a project ‘relationally’?
Relational Project Management involves a way of thinking and series of principles that will suit local government. Key to practicing it are the simple questions: is the nature and quality of my relationships helpful to achieving the goals of the project? If not, what am I going to do about it?
Tried-and-tested tools, including ‘check-ins’ at the start of meetings, stakeholder mapping, techniques for building relationships, and guidelines for how to have difficult conversations, all help build healthy and productive project relationships.
Crucially, Relational Project Management doesn’t replace established approaches such as PRINCE2 – rather, it is designed to work with them to provide a new lens through which to view projects based on the centrality of human relationships. Good Relational Project Management still relies on many of the same best practice principles that will be familiar to any experienced project manager.
Ultimately, project management in local government relies on respectful relationships, and a belief in resolving difficulties. Where teams work together and relationships are good is where you get the best result – managing relationally can help you do that.
To learn more about Relational Project Management, you can download Mutual Ventures’ free resources here.
To view a webinar exploring what Relational Project Management means for local government click here.