In early December, Science Hub Programme Director Tim Harry and I were sitting in PHE’s head office at Wellington House waiting to be called downstairs to get the feedback from the external team who were reviewing the progress with the programme. We joked that it felt like sitting outside the Headmaster’s office at school or waiting for the envelope with exam results to drop through the letter-box.
The external review was a Programme Assurance Review (PAR), which we had commissioned jointly with the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office. It had been set up to advise us whether the programme was on track to produce the Outline Business Case for the summer. It was a fascinating, though rather nerve-wracking, exercise: inviting in two outside experts - strangers to the programme - to spend a week reading key documents and interviewing people involved. It is inevitable that the core team working on this major programme, which potentially will spend £500m of taxpayers’ money to create a centre for public health science in this country, are very close to the key issues so having the independent and external perspective of people who are experts in delivering programmes though not in health protection or health improvement is extremely valuable.
Over the past few months, we have focused on “refreshing the vision” for the science hub programme and the key task of the review team was to see if this vision was robust and relevant. Their feedback was that the elements were all there – the vision was clear on the need to replace some ageing buildings and on the potential benefits for co-locating various services on one site but it could say more about how this directly related to key aspects of government policy and on how capital investment could transform our work enabling new technologies and new partnerships. This would be crucial to enable Public Health England to remain as one of the international centres working on preventing and tackling the spread of known and currently unknown infectious diseases and also to enable us to build a centre of expertise for non-communicable disease and population health improvement.
The review also focused on the way in which the programme is organised. For me, we need to strike a balance between what has been shown to work on other programmes and what meets our needs for this specific programme – it is easy to get this balance wrong and have what looks like a great structure but fails to get the vital input from staff; however we cannot put on blinkers and fail to learn from both the successes and failures in other recent large programmes.
The feedback on this was also helpful – we had the key components needed for the programme to deliver the Outline Business Case in the summer, though this timetable is very challenging. We need to focus more on what and how the potential benefits that we have identified in the vision, will be delivered and measured and, before too long, we should look at the skills in the current programme team so we bring in the expertise of people on building design and construction.
The reason it felt like waiting for examination results is that the Review Team mark the programme’s work, so for all the detail in the recommendations and observations the casual reader of the PAR Report can simply look at the score that has been given. We were given an “amber rating” which means, in the formal language of the review process, that delivery is feasible and though there are significant issues, these should be resolvable. Tim and I felt this was a fair rating – we know that we have some big decisions to make in the next seven months but we believe that we know how to address these and all the recommendations were helpful in focusing our efforts on the most important issues. It was encouraging that the Review Team took a similar view but the ball is back in our court now – we have to pull all the different strands of the programme together so we deliver a business case that identifies and makes the case for the best possible option for the future of those public health science functions that sit with central government.