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Making strides towards Net Zero: Programme Management Offices for transformation

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nigel Chisnall

Nigel Chisnall | AtkinsRéalis

6 min read Partner content

Nigel Chisnall, transformation expert at AtkinsRéalis, outlines how Net Zero Programme Management Offices can help government to achieve its environmental goals.

Across government, sustainable programmes are no longer just an option, they are a fundamental necessity if we are to achieve Net Zero goals. To deliver them, we will need a management vehicle that can scale to the most transformative engineering and environmental programmes: the Net Zero Programme Management Office (NZ-PMO). While it may start life as a control function, with sponsorship it can grow to offer full modelling of the programme and its environmental contribution as a digital twin.   

The key goal of the NZ-PMO is to baseline, monitor and underpin the course correction needed to reduce government’s major programmes’ emissions, whether these are delivering digital transformation, core capabilities, or key services. It operates within the ‘client’s agent’ model – i.e. the PMO is there as the agent of the sponsor – to act as an independent, honest broker, providing an instrumented dashboard that is open to scrutiny, governance, and can be a vehicle for decision making and intervention. NZ-PMOs can be categorised into three grades of maturity, which are cumulative:  

  • Simple NZ-PMO – a Net Zero-aware PMO, measuring and reporting on emissions’ behaviour  
  • Self-improving NZ-PMO – as the simple NZ-PMO, but with an accent on culture change 
  • Systemic NZ-PMO – which not only measures, reports and changes organisations’ culture, but also aims to address NZ expectations that are scaled to the needs of clients and large investments.

Offering scientific rigour, the simple NZ-PMO delivers emissions measurements, the self-improving contributes to changing emissions, and the systemic takes programmes net-zero aspirations to the next stage by tackling the source of the emissions.  

For government, the Systemic NZ-PMO can be a vehicle of evaluation or a provider of advocacy in the form of evidence of change. Building on its Theory of Change, the UK Government’s Cabinet Office’s Evaluation Task Force (ETF) is aiming to ‘ensure that robust evidence on the effectiveness of policies and programmes sits at the heart of government spending decisions’, using empirical and mathematical assessments of benefits. One of its target outcomes looks to build novel experimental methods into evaluation designs and, as an innovative experimental method, the NZ-PMO can support measurement of performance and give advocacy its place in transformation. 

Calibrating the NZ-PMO mixing deck 

Every organisation is different, and each will have its own specific needs that it wants the NZ-PMO to fulfil. Think of it as a DJ’s ‘mixing desk’: each dial and slider on the desk focuses on a particular area – for example, sponsorship, communications, people change, decarbonisation or social value – and, depending on the organisation’s requirements, each dial will need to be set at a certain level and turned up or down at different stages of the programme. The NZ-PMO mixing desk is also likely have some dials not seen in traditional PMOs, such as carbon accounting and the United Nations’ (UNs’) Sustainability Goals.   

In the Self-Improving NZ-PMO, for example, we would need to dial up sponsorship, reporting and culture impact. In one self-improving NZ-PMO that we delivered in the public sector, we needed to dial up engagement, change management and cultural development to ensure that lasting change, effective engagement and advocacy, and behavioural change were embedded in the organisation. This NZ-PMO was a vehicle to provide benefits accountability, cohesion, and consistency across the programme’s multi-party delivery structures. With complex programmes that rely upon multiple suppliers potentially seeing competitive tensions across the supply chain, the NZ-PMO can smooth these out – offering strategic interventions that help collaborators understand their shared accountability across Net Zero practice.   

From evolution to adoption 

The NZ-PMO concept has been evolving, but we believe it is now at a scale where it is ready for its place in some of the world’s major engineering and asset management programmes. Tools such as DecarbonomicsTM can help organisations to baseline and benchmark their emissions, to evaluate interventions and develop decarbonisation roadmaps, to create cost- and programme-optimised delivery plans and to track performance towards successfully decarbonising their entire estate. Social value calculators can inform procurement, offering economic value metrics that are related to the social value of organisations’ investment in programmes, including carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions’ avoidance and those linked to the UN Sustainability Goals.   

But there are still opportunities for the NZ-PMO to evolve further – particularly the Systemic NZ-PMO – through the stages of the maturity model. The creation of ‘rainbow coalitions’ across multiple organisations is likely to see these PMOs scaled up for the biggest of transformations. A full NZ-PMO, designed to support the Net Zero agenda and deliver its outcomes, is most likely to appear in major, multi-professional team programmes, with plans in place for embedding innovative decarbonisation, circular economy and sustainability technologies. On our NZ-PMO mixing deck, these will turn up the dials on transformation, positive societal outcomes, future options value, reputation, measurement against the UN Sustainability Goals, and circular management of resources. They will allow all programme partners, participants and stakeholders to have a ‘view inside the machine’.  

Understanding cause and effect 

Many programmes use linear diagrams to describe cause and effect. Within the NZ-PMO we take a systems’ thinking approach, replacing this with a new language of ‘causal loop’, ‘feedback’, and ‘leverage’, to understand not only cause and effect but where can we make change happen. Figure 1 below (Adapted from Senge, 20051), for example, shows the interrelationship between the economy, CO2 emissions and global warming/climate instability, and identifies major engineering and management interventions. The arrows show the direction of influence and impact and, for the NZ-PMO, become levers of change: give the NZ-PMO a lever long enough and it can move a planet. 

There are engineering and management solutions at each part of the loop. The NZ-PMO can act as an integrative mechanism to measure, drive and improve these solutions, and thus to achieve Net Zero targets, delivering economies of scale, scope and learning. Just as the NZ-PMO moves takes the mixing desk of services beyond those of the standard PMO services, turning up the dial on new capabilities, the Systemic NZ-PMO will go beyond the simple and self-improving models to provide a digital twin of the programme as the machine. 

Atkins graphic

Eight key NZ-PMO levers within the digital twin will measure, analyse trends, and invoke management interventions from the: 

  • Economic returns from the programme 
  • Reinvestment from the programme 
  • Resource procurement and consumption 
  • Employment, job enrichment and apprenticeships 
  • Emissions, with the aim of zero emissions 
  • Emissions offset or avoided, with the aim of net zero or net negative 
  • Total economic and social value of the programme 
  • Use of the planet’s primary energy source or fossil fuel avoidance

This will couple the programme to environmental and production factors, capacity and delivery, model interventions and allocate accountability for outcomes. 

Government must deliver sustainable programmes at scale to achieve its Net Zero goals, and NZ-PMOs can help it succeed. Both the Simple NZ-PMO that builds on the green project management movement in designing its reporting and decision-support services, and the Self-improving NZ-PMO that generates high engagement with delivery partners, create shared superordinate goals, and have the vision to drive culture change, will offer significant gains. But, for major programmes to achieve regenerative and transformational influence, they will need a scalable Systemic NZ-PMO that measures outcomes, shapes demand, provokes interventions and makes a difference by changing society for the better.

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