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Title: Understanding reform project failure in the UK : a morphogenetic approach
Author: Russell, C.
ISNI:       0000 0004 6059 7072
Awarding Body: University of Liverpool
Current Institution: University of Liverpool
Date of Award: 2016
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Government reform projects fail at an alarming rate (Cabinet Office, 2014), wasting billions of pounds in public spending and sustaining what has been termed the “performance paradox” (Flyvbjerg et al,. 2003, p.3). The paradox suggests that despite ever increasing numbers and magnitudes of major projects, the rate of failure continues to grow too. In addressing this paradox, this research responds to Flyvbjerg’s (2001), call for phronetic social science that concerns itself with society’s improvement and enters into public dialogue and praxis. In so doing, the research promotes a second order approach to understanding project failure to challenge taken-for-granted evaluation processes and concerns itself with working towards improving what and how we learn lessons. The study presents a detailed and reflexive account of an exemplar case of Government project failure, from an alternative perspective. The case exposes the political conceptualisations underpinning unsuccessful attempts to regionalise parts of the English fire service via the structural reform project called ‘FiReControl1’. The FiReControl project was initiated in 2004 under the Labour Government and was cancelled by the Coalition Government in 2010. The Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the failure of FiReControl labelled it one of the worst cases of project failure that the Committee had seen (Hodge, Public Accounts Committee, 2011), and blamed project and ministerial department staff for the failure. The research challenges the adequacy of taken-for-granted evaluations of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), that typically finds project delivery agents to blame after reform projects are considered to have failed. A phronetic approach would be sceptical of the PAC methodology alone to provide definitive answers after reform projects fail, since social and particularly political actions from which reform projects emerge, are complex and unfold over time in the unobservable realms of Government institutions. A truer understanding of reform projects requires knowledge of both their context and their history emergence (Archer, 1995), that is not accessible through theory alone (Flyvbjerg et al. 2012). The intention of this study was to explore these concepts of time and context to ascertain if alternative theoretical perspectives and analytic methods can help us to understand more about 1 The FiReControl logo will be written as such throughout this manuscript for consistency. The capitalisation represented the ‘Fire and Resilience’ section of Department of Communities and Local Government and Control being the fire service function that was to be regionalised under the reform. 11 why many large-scale public reform projects do not complete successfully, or are considered failures. A fundamental concept underpinning the research was ontological, asking not just where project failure begins, but also, what exactly is project failure. The study premised its perspective of reform project failure on the idea of it being a loss of support, or a loss of legitimacy and not an objective state of reality (McConnell, 2003). The study departs from traditional ‘flat ontology’ of much foundationalist and resource-based research and evaluation in the field and set out to explore where and how legitimacy for FiReControl began, what sustained it and by what power the final, contested reform idea was approved. The approach sought to reveal more of the power-relations that underlie policy reforms, working beneath the more obvious levels of policy-effectiveness assessment found in conventional post-project evaluation approaches. Using the overarching philosophy of critical realism, the realist social theory method approach of the morphogenetic sequence (Archer, 1995), is adopted, as well as critical hermeneutic methods, to operationalise the idea that society consists of parts and people, the social and the individual, structures and agents. The methods revealed changing situational logics (Archer, 1995), as organisational relations ebbed and flowed across the sequence of events. The logics influenced the decisions and actions of agents which served their vested interests to a greater or lesser extent, depending on which groups held more agency at the time. The hermeneutic analyses of key texts revealed how the Government was not only predisposed to act by the institutional legitimacy of new public management, but also how powerful legitimating devices were deployed to further their ideas over any alternatives. The methods gave explanatory power to understanding the emergent properties of mechanisms of legitimacy and institutionalism in building support for structural reform. Moreover, the methods revealed the power by which Government ideas finally succeeded in 2004, where they had failed in 1999, by the morphogenesis (transformation), of corporate agency. Corporate agents promote their own interests to define and redefine organisational goals; they “pack more punch in defining and redefining structural forms” (Archer, 1995, p. 191). The influence of these mechanisms in shaping the FiReControl project, regardless of any reliable evidence to suggest the reform could succeed, was not explored by the Public Accounts Committee.
Supervisor: Meehan, J. ; Drake, P. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral