Project Objectives and Outcomes in the Public Sector

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 12
Words: 3319
Reading time:
13 min
Study level: PhD

Public Sector Projects

Public or government projects are implemented to facilitate the achievement of specified societal goals. Effective project governance is required to ensure that the project conforms to the societal values, needs, and interests in the planning and implementation stages. According to Samset et al. (2016), public projects result from political processes that involve compromises between societal actors and the government. As such, managing the needs and priorities of the different stakeholders throughout the project cycle is important. To avoid the clashing or conflicting interests, the local administrative agencies, citizens, the media, and private contractors and consultants must fully participate in the definition, design, and execution phases of the public project cycle following the principles of transparency and altruism (Flyvbjerg 2014). Project governance is required to support a structured and efficient planning and execution of the public investment initiative.

In essence, project governance may follow any of the three widely used policy formulations: “the stick, the carrot, and the sermon” (Samset et al. 2016, p. 11). The stick denotes alternate regulatory measures, while the carrot implies the economic options available to the authorities. In contrast, the sermon connotes the information, i.e., advice or warnings against unethical practices (Samset et al. 2016). This model of project governance is illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Government Policy Instruments
Figure 1: Government Policy Instruments

Projects usually follow a logical sequence beginning with concept development and definition at the front-end stage of the project prior to operationalisation. Concept development is guided by an evaluation of the conditions and premises that inform a particular measure (Samset et al. 2016). Public projects often involve three fundamental steps, namely, definition, design, and execution. Project definition entails the clarification of the objectives at the “strategic, tactical, and operational” levels grounded in societal needs (Samset et al. 2016, p. 13). At the design phase, the strategies for attaining the objectives are defined based on expected impact or ambitions. It provides a means for project execution. The execution phase is where the project action items are implemented and progress monitored.

In the front-end phase, a consideration of the effects of the actions on the outputs is crucial. This requires the design of the outcomes/results in addition to project design. The former step generates a specification of the output values that informs front-end decisions regarding which concept/option to adopt from the start (Flyvbjerg 2014). Output development begins with no baseline data and is fine-tuned into clear, anticipated project results. Output design is related to the selection of the strategies for attaining the objectives/goals. It entails tradeoffs between anticipated gains and costs linked to each solution to determine the best option for attaining the goals/targets.

The means and goals/objectives are intertwined in public sector projects. At all levels, the goal/objective gives the rationale (why), while the means describe the ‘how’ of the project (Flyvbjerg 2014). The Why-How framework helps formulate objectives and respective strategies for achieving them. The Project Management Institute [PMI] (2013) defines five iterative steps in the project management process, namely, “initiation, planning, execution, controlling, and closing” (p. 6). Further, the front-end phase comprises initiation and planning, while the execution phase includes management processes – implementation, monitoring, and closing. The PMI (2013) also states that the initial project definition and design should involve the consideration of options to select the best concept. Subsequently, the selected concept is developed through iterative processes to give the final project that is implemented. Thus, iterative evaluation of the objectives and means is required in formulating/planning a public sector project.

The aforementioned considerations are also important in the implementation and monitoring stages. In this regard, ongoing consideration of the objectives or a change of targets is considered a government role. On the other hand, the development of means of execution will be a role of the project managers of the implementing institution or contractor (Samset et al. 2016). The execution step may involve changes to the objectives to mitigate the negative effects of the change, while maximising the benefits to people. Thus, ongoing evaluation of the project, including consideration of the end user’s perspective, during execution is required to increase the return on investment at the end.

Samset et al. (2016) give a fundamental logic of public projects from the identification of the societal need to the achievement of the desired effect. The actual needs of the citizens inform the development of a relevant project concept to address them. A relevant project is the one whose outcomes/deliverables are considered sustainable. As a result, the identification of the societal needs is the starting point of public project development. The formulation of objectives and goals/targets based on the identified needs is then done to guide the subsequent execution and monitoring of goal-oriented initiatives. This process is illustrated in Figure 2 below.

The Logical Model of Public Projects
Figure 2: The Logical Model of Public Projects

In public investment projects, after formulating the goals, the means or strategies for achieving them are selected. In this case, efficiency in the translation of resources into outputs and the utilisation of the outputs to attain a sustainable effect on the population is of utmost significance (PSGB 2012). In the front-end model, this process is referred to as project design. The actual utilisation of the selected means or strategy occurs in the execution step, generating an output/result. In the public sector, the output could be an infrastructural product or a new system of citizen service delivery. The utilisation of the output determines the project outcomes or deliverables.

The logical framework approach encompasses three perspectives, i.e., strategic, tactical, and operational viewpoints (PSGB 2012). The strategic view focuses on the society. It entails an emphasis on a project’s societal effect over time. In contrast, the tactical perspective centres on the citizens/users’ acceptance of the project, while operational/implementer’s perspective focuses on the results (PSGB 2012). The framework also includes certain tradeoffs during project definition, design, and implementation.

Tradeoffs between outcomes and outputs are considered in feasibility studies related to public sector projects. According to Samset et al. (2016), the outputs must help realise the anticipated outcomes. They are reviewed if they cannot support this goal. A review of the goals (why) or means (how) may also be necessary if the chosen strategy fails to meet the set goals/targets (Samset et al. 2016). Cost-benefit tradeoffs constitute are also considered during project execution to optimise the resources. The tradeoffs described must be considered in the context of the uncertainty in effects, resource availability, and limitations, as shown in Figure 3 below. The tradeoffs are considered in the project design process to refine objectives and select the best concept. Later, during project execution, outcomes vs. outputs as well as costs vs. benefits are considered.

Tradeoffs in Feasibility Studies
Figure 3: Tradeoffs in Feasibility Studies

Project Objectives

Government and public sector institutions often undertake big projects with an intention of initiating a service, upgrading the efficiency of current services, or attaining specific developmental goals. As the PMI (2013) writes, successful public projects require the right expertise, adequate resource allocation, and well-defined objectives/goals to minimise costs and risks while maximising the financial returns and innovation. An objective is a quantifiable criterion for determining project success (IPM 2013). It comprises an attribute, metric/measure, and a specific value.

The objectives of public sector projects are fundamentally different from those of private sector projects because the focus is not on financial returns, but rather on the public good or societal objectives (PMI 2013). Therefore, the overarching goal/objective of investment in public projects is to maximise the population of direct beneficiaries or citizens. In other words, public projects aim at maximising the anticipated social utility of a project.

The objectives are formulated at the definition step and the means of achieving them identified at the design step of the project lifecycle. Objectives/goals act as a performance assessment benchmarks for public projects through measurements and feedback. According to Samset et al. (2016), the ultimate aim of defining objectives is to institute restorative actions and promote learning. Therefore, the objectives/targets in public projects are related to assessment. Governments formulate objectives in partnership with contractors for performance measurement based on the identified population needs and anticipated effects (Samset et al. 2016). In this respect, the objectives and goals are useful benchmark standards for evaluating project progress. The determination of goal achievement or progress helps transfer of learning to subsequent projects or phases.

The formulation of quantifiable project objectives occurs on the project definition stage. Project goals and targets are developed from the objectives. In practice, goals help guide or track the implementation process, while explicit targets are the corresponding measurements of project progress. According to Samset et al. (2016), project objectives are useful in two ways: as components of the needs-effect relationship (horizontal) and in vertical learning that is enshrined in project governance models. The top-to-bottom learning is important in organisational improvement. On the other hand, goals are embedded in the horizontal and vertical dimensions of project objectives as shown in Figure 4 below. The definition of objectives and needs is anchored in established norms or experiences that constitute learning. Typically, norms describe the standards or thresholds for identifying societal needs or effects (Samset et al. 2016). They emanate from cumulated experiences or established rules on how projects are initiated. The established standards help in the expression of objectives based on the identified societal needs.

The definition of objectives/goals for a particular project utilises the standards and the outcomes of a needs analysis of the stakeholders. As Cormican (2016) puts it, the process of defining the objectives requires a deep understanding of the needs and priorities of the people affected by the project. This can only be achieved through the involvement of administrators, users, and other groups to ensure a good understanding of their interests (Cormican 2016). A good knowledge of stakeholder needs will help align the objectives of the different stakeholders with the project’s goals. Stakeholder needs analysis also increases the success rate of projects.

The Dimensions of Objectives
Figure 4: The Dimensions of Objectives

Quantifiable project objectives serve multiple functions in public investment projects. Samset et al. (2016) identify three uses of objectives as establishing a common understanding of the purpose of the project, stimulating motivation or social drive, and clarifying the anticipated results or deliverables of individual tasks. Since the planning and execution phases are often marked by iteration, the above functions usually overlap. The first two functions are tied to the parties involved in project planning; their knowledge of the project’s purpose and motivation is essential in setting specific goals. In contrast, the last function relates to explaining the project to the executing parties to enable them to implement it (Samset et al. 2016). The functions must touch on the elements of the project.

Logically, for public sector projects, the objectives/goals relate directly to the societal needs and effects. The societal needs can be identified in two main ways. The first one involves planning experts who review and assess the specific needs before describing and expressing them (Pulmanis 2015). The second approach entails the involvement of the citizens and other stakeholders in the identification of the needs, which are the prerequisite for the formulation of objectives. The first method is considered a classical public planning approach. Its main advantage is the efficiency or speed with which the needs are identified. It involves a quick needs analysis by experts based on accessible data. Therefore, the approach is entirely dependent on expert knowledge and scientific tools.

In contrast, the involvement of stakeholders in the identification of needs and the formulation of objectives is complex, more costly, and time-consuming. However, the approach comes with multiple advantages, including enhanced communication, realistic assumptions, and well-aligned objectives (Pulmanis 2015). Stakeholder participation is considered a gold standard in the planning and execution of projects in the public sector. Research interest in this area has focused on whether the approach could yield low-quality decisions because of the reduced use of rational methods. The findings indicate that increased stakeholder access to data, ideas, and resources contributes to superior quality decisions compared to pure expert analysis (Pulmanis 2015). Therefore, the best approach for the development of the definition of objectives is stakeholder involvement.

The main issue in defining project objectives is consideration of how outcomes are related to the needs at the societal level and the user/tactical level (Pulmanis 2015). The overarching question concerns the effects that would give the users/society the highest benefits. A clear understanding of this relation is a prerequisite for identifying and formulating relevant objectives and goals. In addition, understanding the limitations inherent in the project is important in determining what could be attained under the prevailing conditions (Pulmanis 2015). Another dimension in the formulation of objectives relates to the evaluation of the success rate of a project. The objectives/goals must include key performance indicators (KPIs) to help track progress.

Project Outcomes and Deliverables

Project outcomes/deliverables may be tangible or intangible. The PMI (2013) gives examples of tangible outcomes of public investment projects as road infrastructure, while intangible outcomes may include human resources or experts. Project deliverables are the outputs of a project. They include the “measurable, tangible, and verifiable” outcome or result that must be generated to achieve project goals (PMI 2013, p. 8). The ordering dictates that objectives are measurable, outcomes may be tangible or intangible, and outputs are tangible (PMI 2013). In the public sector, project deliverables are considered the impacts of public services or goods delivered by a government agency to the people. In this regard, the anticipated impact or change is critical in the definition of project outcomes.

The distinction between tangible and intangible outcomes relates to the physical property of project outcomes. Tangible outcomes are perceptible or determinable, while intangible ones are not. According to Pulmanis (2015), tangible outcomes are those that have been operationalized in a way that they are easily quantified and monitored. In contrast, intangible outcomes are not easily quantified, but fall into nominal measures of high or low achievement and success or failure. Therefore, intangible outcomes are assumed as opposed to being measured during a project. Examples may include knowledge transfer or learning from the project’s performance for future budgetary considerations or choice of delivery methods. Others may be social capital, relationships, and stakeholder satisfaction.

The measurement of the tangible value often involves the ROI of a project. However, according to Cormican (2016), most public sector organizations seldom measure ROI and management capabilities related to a project. The reason for this relates to the belief that ROI measurement is complex and management capabilities are the project inputs (Cormican 2016). Intangible benefits relate to the organizational effectiveness and learning resulting from investment in a project. Enhanced decision-making processes, improved communication/collaboration, better work cultures, and management effectiveness are all indicators of intangible value (Cormican 2016). Intangible outcomes of a project may also be improved alignment of organizational values and culture and enhanced transparency and accountability.

As stated above, project outcomes are the result of a change project or initiative. An effective outcome management strategy for public projects is required to realize the desired effect from the change or initiative. Outcome management encompasses a range of activities for “planning, managing, and realizing” the desired outcomes from a project (Pulmanis 2015, p. 11). It strengthens the capacity of governments to provide services that meet the needs of the public. Outcome management aligns a project to the intended outcomes/results delivered in a timely and on-budget way through the logic model (Pulmanis 2015). The logic model links the activities of a project to the outcomes.

A logic model gives a visual representation of the relationship between each output and immediate, intermediate, and ultimate outcomes (Pulmanis 2015). An immediate outcome represents the first-level effect/consequence of an output of an initiative. In contrast, the intermediate outcome includes the gains and capabilities derived from the outputs. The ‘outcome’ encompasses the long-term effects derived from a project. In other words, ‘outcomes’ occur at the end of an initiative.

The outcome management process in the public sector involves four stages, namely, the development of the outcome realization model, planning, monitoring of outcome delivery, and optimization of the outcomes (Pulmanis 2015). For public investment projects, it is important to identify and monitor the intermediate outcomes or indicators to attain the ‘outcomes’. As Pulmanis (2015) states, monitoring the intermediate outcomes helps identify and resolve constraints or problems, contributing to an improved success rate of the project. The strategy also enables implementers or governments to introduce necessary adjustments or adopt a different solution during the execution stage to realize the desired outcomes.

Having an outcome management framework is useful in complex government projects. Outcome management helps dismantle inter-agency silos by involving all stakeholders in the measurement and tracking of outcomes (Pulmanis 2015). The governance framework also helps in clarification of the process of achieving the outcomes, development of the quantitative criteria, and enhancement of accountability (Flyvbjerg 2014). In the public sector, accountability entails obtaining stakeholder buy-in, performance measurement, and building a positive organizational culture.

The outcome management process contains within it the cost-benefit analysis of the initiative. Cost-benefit analysis centers on determining the costs – direct and indirect – related to a project as well as its outcomes (tangible and intangible) (Flyvbjerg 2014). In this way, the management can make effective decisions to realize optimal outcomes. The main limitation of this approach relates to its greater focus on financial outcomes as opposed to ‘soft’ benefits. Thus, project outcomes important in the public sector, e.g., protection of the public, cannot be captured through a cost-benefit analysis. In contrast, the outcome management model supports the measurement of both the financial and soft benefits of an initiative.

In evaluating outcomes, the focus should be on the project’s results and outputs/deliverables. As PSGB (2012) writes, the adoption of outcome management in government projects helps focus the implementers on the outcomes and deliverables. This approach provides the rationale for each activity and measures the results of the activity. In this regard, outcome management can indicate the areas that need improvement to realize the desired goals (Cormican 2016). It also helps align the project with government/departmental priorities at its planning stage.

Outcome management also supports the definition of intangible outcomes of a project. The main challenge faced by public sector projects is specifying and conveying the ‘soft’ benefits that would result from the project to the citizens (PSGB 2012). Using the outcome management framework, implementers can define the public good of a project at the planning phase. As Flyvbjerg (2014) puts it, outcome management allows planners and implementers to establish the connection between individual project activities and the intangible outcomes through a “cause-and-effect logic model” (p. 8). It defines the intangible benefits and stakeholder impact of a project as well as the related costs.

The elements of an outcome management approach, including planning and monitoring of outcomes, can be utilized to strengthen project deliverables. Tangible outcomes such as personnel improvement and cost savings are often expected from a public sector project. However, if the outcome management process is not integrated with government practices, e.g., “project approval and management frameworks, project plans, and scorecards”, the anticipated deliverables may not be realized (Flyvbjerg 2014). The integration helps address systemic challenges in the public sector to achieve higher benefits.


In conclusion, achieving the desired tangible outcomes is often a challenge in the public sector. Projects realize these outcomes at the end, not during the project lifecycle. In addition, anticipated tangible outcomes, such as cost/personnel savings, are allocated to other ministries or government agencies (Flyvbjerg 2014). This means that since the realization of outcomes is not rapid, they are usually not ascribed to the project activities. Additionally, the complex nature of government projects makes it hard to separate and ascribe an outcome/effect to a specific initiative or activity. Further, the government practices of reallocating outcomes or efficiencies, e.g., good governance, obtained in one unit to another make it difficult to specify and attribute them entirely to a given initiative.

Reference List

Cormican, K 2016, Project management for engineers, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland.

Flyvbjerg, B 2014, ‘What you should know about megaprojects and why: an overview’, Project Management Journal, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 6-19.

Project Management Institute [PMI] 2013, A guide to the project management body of knowledge, Project Management Institute Inc., Boulevard, Pennsylvania

Public Sector & Governance Board [PSGB] 2012, The World Bank’s approach to public sector management 2011-2020: better results from public sector institutions, World Bank, Washington DC, Washington.

Pulmanis, E 2015, ‘Microeconomical aspects of public projects: impact factors for project efficiency and sustainability’, PM World Journal Micro-Economical Aspects of Public Projects, vol. 4, no. 6, pp. 1-15.

Samset, KF, Volden, GH, Olsson, N & Kvalheim, EV 2016, Governance schemes for major public investment projects: a comparative study of principles and practices in six countries, Ex Ante Academic Publisher, Trondheim, Norway.