What are the elements of an effective development project?

The elements of an effective development project include identifying the development need, setting clear targets and monitoring them by indicators. Monitoring data is collected during the project, and the work is assessed both during the project and after it has been completed.

We can all learn from joint development projects and the involvement of experts in the development work. The identification of cross-sectoral development needs promotes better management of the overall situation.

Identifying the need for development

The starting point for the development of public administration is identifying and anticipating changes in the operating environment, the efficiency or potential of operations, and the resources. In a development project, the purpose, targets, operating model or funding of a function is reviewed and changed according to a project model.

The condition for a successful development project is that the development need has been identified already in the definition phase and that the measures are correctly planned to meet the need. The projects within the Effectiveness and Performance Programme (VATU) met the identified need well.

The Effectiveness and Performance Programme was a programme for developing public administration that was included in the Government Programmes of Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and Prime Minister Alexander Stubb in 2012–2015. It consisted of 238 development measures and projects identified in different administrative branches. The project aimed at a EUR 400 million productivity benefit by 2020.

The core function analysis on which the Programme was based proved to be an excellent example of systematic identification of development needs in public administration.

Focus on target-setting

It is important to set clear targets in order to ensure efficient implementation of development projects. The Effectiveness and Performance Programme did not fully succeed in this.

The National Audit Office found defects in the preparation of the projects within the Effectiveness and Performance Programme. Because there was not sufficient focus on the definition and planning phases, the targets remained vaguely outlined. They did not steer the operations, and it was not possible to verify whether they had been achieved.

It is also important to consider the targets when the impacts are verified: did the project have the desired impacts or not? A good target makes it possible to define indicators. When the data provided by performance indicators discloses the level on which the targets are achieved and also the impacts of the project, there is no question about the purpose of the project and how it has been achieved.

Monitoring data for correcting errors and supporting learning

The effectiveness of the audited projects was undermined by vague targets and defective project management. Monitoring data plays a key role in such a situation: it can be used to steer and improve the implementation of the project even if the targets had not been clearly defined.

Post-project evaluations based on monitoring data, in turn, make it easier to develop both competence and the operations, while also making the accountability of those responsible for the project more visible. In many project evaluations within the Effectiveness and Performance Programme, the operations and results were verified only by describing in the evaluation reports how the object of development had changed. Unfortunately, the link between the change and the project targets often remained unclear.

In projects implemented by external resources, the evaluation verifies the results reported by these resources. The organisation that orders the project or grants a subsidy should therefore ensure by means of contractual terms that the monitoring data collected of the project enables post-project evaluation.

Different targets converge at the strategic level

The impacts of development projects are mainly realised at the strategic level, through similar effects of different projects. When it is clear how a project is linked with the strategic-level goals, the project targets must also be defined in a manner that makes it possible to compare them with other projects. This makes it also easier to manage the overall strategic efforts.

The National Audit Office did not find any contradictions on the strategic level between the targets of the projects within the Effectiveness and Performance Programme. On the whole, the different measures had similar effects, and together they may have been able to achieve the desired impacts at the Programme level. However, a general problem in the evaluation of joint central government development projects is that it is not possible to evaluate the operations comprehensively through individual projects. It is therefore important to simultaneously evaluate all impacts directed at the same function.

With its performance audit Good practices in development projects, the National Audit Office wants to support the Government and the public administration under it in the projectisation of the Government Programme and other development work. The audit was implemented as a meta-assessment of the projects within the Effectiveness and Performance Programme. We selected this method, because we wanted to highlight more general findings on the effectiveness of development projects instead of focusing on individual projects.

Seven ways to make development projects more effective

  1. Identify the development need.

  2. Before launching the project, set measurable targets for it.

  3. Monitor and document the progress of the project.

  4. Assess the monitoring data in relation to the target and operations and, if necessary, adjust one of them.

  5. If you are a provider of funding, apply a contractual term on the obligation to provide monitoring data.

  6. Take other projects directed at the same function into account.

  7. Combine different targets to achieve impacts.

More information on the audit:  Good practices in development projects – Meta-assessment of projects within the Effectiveness and Performance Programme