Not Only Ferries Run Aground

Scotland’s inability to manage infrastructure requires us to move beyond blame games and towards structural solutions, write Peter McColl and Gilbert Ramsay.

After centuries of shipbuilding pride, the failure to build ships effectively on the Clyde today is one of the main stories in Scottish politics. Besides the saga of stress and misery it is causing islanders, Ferguson Marine’s failure to deliver ferries is part of the wider chronicle of poor project delivery in Scotland. 

The early years of devolution were scarred by failures by the Lab-Lib government in the management of the Scottish Parliament building project. From communications to construction, almost everything went wrong. It brought devolution into disrepute and was a significant factor in the SNP’s victory in 2007. Almost immediately after that, the Edinburgh trams project ran into similar difficulties: years of delay, a network pared back to a single line, and the need to repeat work made the tram a byword for bad management. Although badly managed infrastructure projects are hardly a Scottish phenomenon (one only needs to look at the delays and cost overruns on HS2 and Crossrail), these failures have fed much of the ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ narrative about modern Scotland. This is a problem for Scotland, and a problem in need of solutions. One of the frustrating aspects of the debate about government project delivery is that failures are typically attributed to politicians’ managerial skills, when the fundamental issue is structural. There is plenty of blame, but little attempt to understand what might be causing the problems. 

Devolution, Scotland, and Structural Change

A decent attempt starts by understanding the re-emergence of devolution as a political possibility during the deindustrialisation of the 1980s. The 1970s debate among trade unionists in the Scottish Trades Union Congress was a tipping point in the debate. Convinced that devolution could protect Scottish industry, most put their support behind the proposals, and pressure on Labour to support devolution became unstoppable. The decisive contribution of Mick McGahey, the Scottish leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, was recognised with his ashes being placed in the foundations of the Scottish Parliament. Unfortunately, by the time of devolution in 1999, Scottish industry had declined to the extent that there was little to be saved.

The Scottish Parliament was not set up to sustain or develop industry. It inherited a civil service from the UK that, having once managed coal mining, shipbuilding, steel manufacture and the construction of new towns, had become a mere procurement organisation following the changes of the 1980s. Where projects were still delivered in-house, New Public Management theory suggested that public servants needed to be subjected to market discipline and create mechanisms to mimic the market. No longer managing the big projects, civil servants became more and more dependent on consultancy firms, outsourcing organisations, and other private sector firms, as Mazzucato and Collington detail in The Big Con (2023). The argument was that ‘there is no alternative’: it is simply unimaginable for government to be responsible for big projects as it once was. Meanwhile, consultancy firms have so effectively degraded the civil service’s ability to deliver projects that it seems impossible to imagine them ever being delivered by governments. 

The Scottish Government was trying to do the right thing by bringing the construction of CalMac ferries to the Clyde. The model of offshoring production had resulted in the loss of high-quality manufacturing jobs in Scotland. There will be on-going demand for ferries: it makes sense to create the capacity to manufacture them in Scotland. Doing this well could have created high-quality jobs, the opportunity to innovate, and the capacity to ensure that ferries are built to suit the unique characteristics of Scottish routes.

So what happened with Ferguson Marine? A recent book by Bent Flyvbjerg sets out eleven heuristics for success in managing megaprojects. They include taking on contractors with a track record of success, relying on familiar and proven technologies, carefully planning to mitigate foreseeable risks encountered in similar projects and, wherever possible, favouring incremental, modular approaches over bespoke “one big thing” solutions. Measured against this yardstick, the ferry debacle is a textbook case of what not to do. Eschewing those with relevant experience, the contract was awarded to a billionaire, Jim McColl, in the belief that because he had successfully built pumps he would be able to build ships, and not just any ships, but massive ferries of a new and experimental design. As it turned out, he could not. McColl said he is not to blame and claimed that the government-funded body that owns CalMac’s ships had failed to specify the vessels adequately. The Scottish Government then nationalised the Ferguson’s yard. While not the wrong thing to do, its management was well beyond the means of the Government’s skills. Instead of Jim McColl, the Scottish Government came to rely on one of the big four accountancy firms, Deloitte. Even without finely dissecting what happened, it is clear that what was tried did not work.

The charge provided by opposition politicians was simply that these were personal failings of the ministers responsible: all we need to do is to replace one set of ministers with another. But political parties did not always argue in terms of individual rather than systemic errors. In the 1940s the left argued that laissez faire had failed in the Great Depression, and should be replaced by state planning. Conservatives argued in the 1970s that state planning had become inefficient and needed to be replaced by the free market. In the 1990s, New Labour suggested that state-controlled outsourcing was a better model than a pure free market. Despite the different values, all were structural criticisms of the existing model. What we have now are claims that individuals can solve structural problems without structural change. It is magical thinking. Recently, some have taken a wider and more historically informed view. Both Malcolm Petrie in his book Politics and the People: Scotland 1945-79 and Rory Scothorne in his review of Petrie’s work have described the changing terrain of project delivery in the context of social, industrial and economic change, regarding the difficulties in building ferries as a particular demonstration of the contrast between the substantial achievements of the postwar state and the state of public sector management today. It seems remarkable that the skills developed through the twentieth century have been lost so quickly, and it is worthwhile both asking why and seeking to redress the situation.

To have any hope of facing up to the climate crisis, restoring the public realm, and reversing economic decline that is pushing the UK to the brink, we need to build infrastructure at an unprecedented scale and pace. Parties of the left, centre, and even centre-right need to show that they can make good on promises to ‘build back better’ if anything is to be salvaged in terms of the public’s trust in democratic politics. Even some of the truest blue Tories now recognise that “capitalism as we know it has failed”. Yet there is little discussion outside narrow policy circles of how to reverse the hollowing-out of state capacity to manage public projects. For the neoliberal right, continuing to eviscerate the state is the whole point. For the Blairite centre, claims to superior managerial competence are their basic proposition to voters, but they offer little detail about structural reform. For the political left, who should be most open to the discussion, admitting that there may be limits to the interventionist state’s ability to hit the ground running carries its own risks.

Better Project Delivery: Four Proposals

What we want, then, is a new conversation about restoring the capacity to build big. We offer the following suggestions in that spirit, to encourage critical thinking not about which individuals would magically fix all the problems, but about what needs to change to allow us to deliver projects effectively.

Worker-led approaches

In 1971, workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders responded to the government’s attempt to close the yards not by going on strike, but by taking over the yards and completing the orders on the order book. The work-in gives a fantastic example of how to build better insights into the process of delivering projects. It not only saved the yards, it also increased productivity, like many other cases of workers’ cooperative control.

The Scottish Government’s extraordinary inability to build ships on the Clyde reflects the failure to harness the expertise of the workers, who understand shipbuilding better than billionaires or accountants. Practical insights from frontline workers both contribute to delivering things better, and increase the capacity to commission. Through a structured programme of worker involvement in workplace decision-making, governance, and research and development, we could spread the skills required to deliver projects better, making the public sector less dependent on consultants and plutocrats. 

Broadening perspectives 

The UK Civil Service has for years been encouraged to promote secondments into and out of itself from the private sector, in the interests of ‘porosity’. Setting up industry as the only point of comparison, and the only possible alternative, creates a revolving door and a culture of dependence. 

What about a secondment scheme which, instead, encouraged civil servants to work for a period of time in another country’s civil service? We should not idealise our neighbours. France, despite its reputation for state-led grand projects, is also increasingly dependent on private consultancy. But looking beyond the narrow possibilities of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civil service culture would be one way of realising Scotland’s cosmopolitan aspirations and introducing its public servants to new ways of doing things. 

Price the cost of learning into public procurement 

Over the past decade, much has been written about how to refill the ‘hollowed out’ procurement capacity of public administration in the UK. In most cases, worthy-sounding strategies imply that it is possible to have it all: short-term value for money, as well as long-term benefits. The Scottish Government needs to recognise that “supply chain development” – a key aim of its latest procurement strategy – requires strategic and deliberate investment in organisational and collective learning. 

Sometimes this learning could mean recognising that fledgling Scottish industries or those that are being rebuilt do not have what they need to deliver big projects on their own, and require knowledge exchange, partnership and investment in the local supply chain to be built into contracts with external companies. This is recognised as good practice in developing world contexts, and actually happened in the recent leasing of large areas of the Scottish sea bed for renewable energy development. The leasing was controversial, and its outcome remains to be seen, but there was logic behind it. It is also important to value learning from failure. A potential upside of the ferry fiasco is that Scotland now has a nationalised shipbuilding company which, by next year, will know a lot about how to build cutting-edge ferries. Making sure these skills and capacities do not rot away would salvage something from the money and political capital wasted. 

Building project management capacity

In the coming years, completing big projects will be essential to our national future and our global future. We need to see these as missions, beyond a job, whose reward is contributing to the common good of Scotland and the world. Yet those with project management skills in the public sector are likely to be headhunted for better-paid jobs in the consultancy firms that are such a significant part of the problem. There is an alternative. By placing project management at the heart of the Scottish approach to creating a fairer society in a sustainable world, we can create a collective sense of purpose that will retain people with skills, despite the potential rewards on offer elsewhere. This approach can be supported by institutions in which the lessons of past projects are shared and learned. The French institutions which train top administrators for public services and nationally significant corporations offer one blueprint in this area.

By placing projects to decarbonise Scotland at the heart of a national mission, we also make the case for re-shoring jobs as part of the renewables boom. Similarly, the challenge of delivering a more energy-efficient building stock, decarbonising transport, and transforming the food system to reduce its climate impact requires broad-based societal buy-in. Part of that has to be the ability to manage projects better. 

By shifting the debate beyond a political blame game to solutions, we can move on from the failings exemplified by Ferguson’s Yard, and begin to develop an analysis of what needs to be done. We have sketched some paths forward. It is now time for a wider discussion about how to deliver projects better. 

Peter McColl is a writer and thinker. He was Rector of the University of Edinburgh 2012-15 and has a wide range of interests from data and technology to
public participation in policy. Gilbert Ramsay is Knowledge Exchange and Impact Manager in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University
of Edinburgh. He has previously lectured in International Relations.