1. Administrative rules, policies and processes

Public projects are intended to serve public interests and are generally financed with public funds. Public agencies are therefore obligated to follow various administrative rules and procedures affecting business processes to guarantee transparent and fair procedures and clear decision-making, and avoid conflicts of interest. For example, agencies purchasing goods and services above specific financial limits have to comply with a standardised public-tender process with defined deadlines and procurement documentation. Such public tenders are published in Switzerland on the electronic platform simap.ch.

2. Many stakeholders with varied interests

Managing project stakeholders is an important and challenging task for project managers in both the private and public-sectors. In each case, project managers have to deal with a wide array of stakeholders with various interests. Added to this, public-project environments often include a wide array of additional stakeholders, such as legislators, political opposition, agencies, interest groups and broader public groups, who can influence the outcome of the project. Depending on the stakeholders’ individual situation, they may support a project, request changes or even block it, which makes the business of managing project stakeholders more complex.

3. Environment with often conflicting goals and outcomes

In general, the goals and outcomes of private-sector projects are defined in line with the purpose of the company. The goals of public projects, by contrast, are intended to serve the public interest. Because of the wide array of stakeholders in public environments, numerous different expectations regarding project goals and outcomes have to be aligned. This can lead to conflicting demands and complex processes to define goals, outcomes and benefits.

4. Influence of politics, political processes and public interests

In private organisations a body such as the management board can act as the final decision-maker. In the public sector, consensus has to be reached on the purpose, outcome and scope of a project. Depending on the public laws, regulations and processes involved, stakeholders such as elected politicians, individual citizens or interest groups have various ways of influencing the project − for example by electing their desired representatives, participating in expert groups, committees and commissions, or raising objections. In addition, public projects are often monitored closely by the media, which may influence behaviour and the opinions of stakeholders.

Comprehensive definition of project success

As we have seen, the complexities of a public project basically preclude determining its success or failure solely in terms of the iron triangle. Instead we need an encompassing framework to assess the various dimensions of success − including, but not limited to, project management efficiency − taking account of the various stakeholder groups, the strategic objectives and future capabilities. This is a very important factor when determining the objectives of a project, as it enables the various aspects and metrics of success to be adequately portrayed or defended in communications with internal and external stakeholders.

Success and time

It is not sufficient to assess the multitude of dimensions that determine success or failure only during the project life cycle or immediately after go-live. The various determinants of project success need to be tracked over certain periods of time − which in the case of public projects may run into decades. The different timeframes for the various dimensions of success can be ordered as shown in the figure below. They range from project efficiency, which can be ascertained during and immediately after the project, to the creation of future capabilities, usually manifest only after longer periods of time. But these timeframes need to be appraised beforehand, and with the proper metrics.


“Only then can we truly determine if and how a public project can be considered a success or failure!”

An example illustrating this multitude of dimensional success is the Sydney Opera House. It started as a huge failure in regard to project efficiency, with initial budgeted costs of AUD 7 million rising to more than AUD 100 million. However, it ultimately turned out to be a major success for Sydney and the whole of Australia.