Search the PMO Conference Library

Watch back all our PMO Conference sessions

PMO Library | Free Articles | Inside PMO | PMO Book Shelf

The PMO’s Journey in Scotland’s Census 2022 – Insights, Lessons, and Future Directions

Join us for a session that delves into the journey of the PMO in Scotland’s Census 2022. As Simon navigates the successes and challenges encountered along the way, he will unveil valuable insights, key lessons, and how these can help shape NRS PPM delivery approaches moving forward.

The session will focus on:

  • The importance and significance of Scotland’s Census, understanding why it holds immense value for the country.
  • From Support to Strategy: the transformation of the 2022 Census PMO, evolving from a support office to a strategic management hub. Learn how this shift played a pivotal role in the programme’s success.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Lessons: explore the obstacles and challenges encountered throughout the Census journey. Gain valuable insights from the lessons learned.
  • Census Capability and Legacy Benefits: Delve into the enduring benefits of the Census project, fuelling the National Records of Scotland’s Project Portfolio Management and delivery approaches. Uncover how this initiative has enhanced organisational capabilities and laid a solid foundation for future projects and programmes.

By the end of this session, you’ll walk away with a deep understanding of Scotland’s Census 2022 programme, its transformative PMO journey, and the invaluable lessons and insights gained along the way for the National Records of Scotland.


Recorded Session

Presentation Deck

Download the presentation deck


What We Liked!

We really liked the elements from the PMO handbook – we asked Simon how big it was – about 120 pages all in. On the session there were a couple of people who were about to start working on their own so it was good to be able to see someone else’s. One attendee said “I want one and have this as something I need/want to develop next year.”

We liked the focus on governance and assurance, which was accompanied by plenty of gateways throughout the programme. The programme was seven years long so it was interesting to see how the governance changed over that time (and the handbook being updated too)

We also liked Simon’s term of phrase, “Closest Crocodile to the Canoe” which actually comes from “an old military saying that applies to a variety of situations. It refers to dealing with the most vital and urgent issue first. If you want to survive and thrive, you will need to “attack” whichever “crocodile” is directly in front of you”.

We asked why a partner like Deloitte was necessary in the earlier days – Simon said a partner like this was crucial because they had to transform the way the Census was being managed and that meant moving at pace.

Finally, we like the idea of benefits management being used in an internal way – “An interesting point about benefits of the PMO – especially when its rolling off a programme and its a case of what next for that PMO and its people.” Benefits management in this case is about, did the PMO deliver its intended benefits too in relation to legacy post-programme.


Transcript from the Session

Hi everyone, I’m Simon Hazlewood and I work for the National Records of Scotland as the PMO Manager for the Scotland’s Census programme.  I’m a career civil servant and have been with the NRS for a long time in mostly governance related roles.  I’m here today to talk to you about Scotland’s Census programme and I’d just like to thank Lindsay and team for the opportunity to share that experience with you all today.

In terms of the presentation, it’s essentially a chronological storyline of the Census programme, but with a primary focus on governance, and within that the journey of the PMO.  It’s not intended as an example of best practice, it’s purely and simply our journey and our experience., and hopefully some of these experiences may resonate with your own.

I’ll finish up with some reflection both from colleagues on the programme and my own reflections, all in a governance context and set against what has been a long and challenging journey.

I expect the presentation will take up the full slot this morning so probably not time for questions as we go through.  However I’m happy to be approached either in person or via email afterwards with any questions you might have.  Ok, so here we go….

I’m assuming most of you will be familiar with the Census, it’s been around for a long time, for 222 years to be precise.  It started as a very simple head count although the 1801 Census did also ask people to confirm their occupation – and the story goes that this was in part to establish the number of seamen available to fight in the Napoleonic wars!  It has grown a lot since then, for the current Census there were up to 40 questions for us to answer.

2022 was the first predominantly digital census where we targeted 75% of responses to be completed online.  We surpassed that total with almost 9 out of responses made online.

Census is big and complex – example of the scales involved shown here to give you a sense of the logistics involved.

The Census provides a very rich and valuable source of information and remains the backbone of the population statistics system in Scotland.

At the macro level census data is used to inform policy and decisions around service provision in Scotland, across multiple sectors including central and local government, large private sector organisations, the third sector and so on.

But we can also see some case study examples on the right which demonstrate more local uses of census data to deliver benefit to people in Scotland- so the census is for everyone and the data is used far and wide and at all levels.

Overall we estimate (from Office of National Statistics research) that for every £1 spent on the Census Programme, it delivers around £5 benefit to the wider economy.  This is a similar ratio across the world with other census taking countries.

Early stages of the programme

So we start our journey on the current Census and some reflection on the early stages of the programme.  In 2016 we were very much forming options for the current Census largely based on lessons learned from the 2011 Census.

We knew at this stage that we would go with a primarily online census, and that was what digital meant to us at that time.  Then into 2017 and emerging advice coming from Audit Scotland via their Principles for a digital future publication and also the forming of the Scottish Government’s Digital Assurance Office.  So guidance was changing to reflect new digital approaches and the Digital First / Digital Scotland Service Standard being introduced.  So we are at this point trying to understand what this means for Census beyond just an online solution, it’s a different way of working.

As we continued to learn more we recognised as we progressed through 2018 that the simple governance structure we had was not necessarily aligned with a digital approach and would also not be sufficient for next phase of the programme which included a large scale census rehearsal in 2019.

So we initiated an independent assurance review (SG Gateway) in Dec 2018 to assess the existing programme governance, our delivery model, and our assurance arrangements.  The review delivered a Red rating and provided a wide range of recommendations around decision making, information flows, communication (internally and externally), roles and responsibilities (both of our governance forums and delivery teams), silo’d working etc.  So a bit of a difficult report card at that time but equally not unexpected.  Crucial that we understood what needed to change and importantly to have that independent voice to confirm this.

In response to these recommendations…..

My own journey started in May 2019 when I was asked to take over the PMO function and help to implement the Gateway review recommendations – so bringing me in was part of that response.  I had worked on census before and led on governance for the 2011 Census, but had been working in a corporate governance role in NRS up to this point.

Discovery – little / no direct PMO experience in team – best efforts from staff but skills/capability issues through that lack of experience on working on a big and complex programme.  It was in effect an administrative support office with no clear sense of purpose.  There were also some significant gaps in governance controls as gateway review had identified.  In all I found the PMO lacked focussed connection with the programme teams.

Action – I set the vision for a strategic PMO and developed a transition plan.  Made some headway but also found it difficult to move at pace with a combination of inexperienced team and with delivery teams focussed on hard deadlines for 2019 Rehearsal. Governance being second in their priorities and this was all part of the prevailing culture on the programme at that time, with teams working in silo’s.

Reflection – Insufficient time to upskill existing staff at pace required to support the programme.

As this was progressing we had a follow up assurance review in July which noted an improving picture against governance recommendations (not just PMO) but still a number of areas of concern round delivery of the Rehearsal later that year.  Key recommendation to inject more experience around programme management and digital programme delivery.  PMO part of that recommendation and need to ensure NRS builds an enduring PMO capability.

So new team formed in late 2019 / early 2020.  New PMO Handbook was developed to re-set governance – this brought together into one place all the processes, controls, roles and responsibilities, governance structure, reporting and escalation into one place for everyone.  This was a major piece of work delivered at pace to get to a first baseline by March 2020.  Personally, a very difficult situation to handle as I had to manage the exit of existing PMO staff whilst at the same time working to embed new staff who were in effect replacing them.  So wellbeing of exiting staff was a key concern at that time and focus to make sure handled with care and support.

Feb 2020 follow up assurance review confirmed that all governance recommendations had been implemented and programme now recovered from initial 2018 Red rating to Amber in terms of delivery confidence.  So a key chapter in the programme story ends on an up following significant and prolonged efforts to position the programme to deliver a successful census in 2021.

So we started 2020 with full intention to deliver a Census in 2021 with a set of key priorities for the year ahead as you can see on screen.  We had just started the process of rolling out the new PMO Handbook to staff when……

Programme Delivery Priorities

Covid19 broke out – led to a full and in-depth options appraisal of the impact this would have on the Census.  We determined that the impact was substantial and flagged the programme as Red in terms of delivery confidence against the Census taking place in March 2021 to our existing design.  We initiated an external review into the approach we took for the options appraisal which found our approach to be sound.  PMO played a co-ordinating role in both the  options appraisal and the external assurance process.  Subsequent decision by Ministers in July 2020 to delay Census by one year.

So we are now in the midst of a major exercise to re-plan for a Census in March 2022.  A lot of hard work between July and November to develop the revised delivery plan taking into account impact on our resources, suppliers, costs, assumptions, risks etc.  Again PMO provided a co-ordinating role in this re-planning activity, for example by carrying out a full resource review across the whole programme lifecycle, whilst also rolling out the new PMO Handbook.

Revised plan approved in December and against which we had another external assurance review.  This provided an Amber delivery confidence assessment against a March 2022 Census.

So getting back to the new PMO team, our new remit and the launch of the PMO Handbook……

  • PMO Handbook structured around 6 key elements of governance as you can see here. For each element the Handbook provided detailed guidance on how this would work and the roles and responsibilities of both the PMO and programme staff.
  • Rolled out to all staff in a waved approach across April 2022 via series of compulsory sessions with Q&A aspect. The feedback was very positive and that this gave the programme team confidence and assurance on how we could manage the programme effectively.
  • The following slides provide some key points across each element of the PMO remit.


Delivery Planning & Dependency Management

So first priority was to ensure we had a realistic plan to deliver the census in 2022 and to then ensure we kept that plan under constant review.  Also importance of managing this plan in terms of relationship with budgets and resources so we could plan ahead for these.

So we had a position whereby we had to this point had:

  • no consistent approach to levelling of milestones across the projects – so had to re-define what these meant.
  • dependencies were largely understood but not plugged in as such – so guidance developed for that.
  • reporting didn’t provide senior management with clear enough view (both short and longer term) – 8WLA and long term views

In summary we:

  • brought in experienced planner who could retain the whole picture view across the programme
  • standardised planning and dependency management processes
  • had sessions with project managers to ensure all understood what was required.

brought more focus to reporting against the plan, with dependencies and impact of change better understood.

Governance & Reporting

A recommendation from external assurance was to have clear focus and accountability across our structure and decision making.  We also recognised the importance of locking down the design and carefully managing change to that.

Two key changes to our structure were made:

Delivery Management Forum would focus on progress against the plan and tackling related blockers, risks and issues, bringing together key stakeholders from across the programme team to help mitigate and resolve these.

Change and Delivery Board would focus on the Programme’s readiness to progress to Go-Live alongside taking decisions around more strategic changes that are being identified, e.g. design changes.  Also dealing with escalations from the Delivery Management Forum beyond tolerance.

This was a really helpful separation of duties at the time – too much for one forum to handle.

We also sought to make clear the how reporting would work in practice,  

More clarity for PMs as to where the reports go and when, what they are used for and timely flow through from all projects

Standardised reporting – keeping it simple, emphasising that we were not reporting for reporting sake, yet maybe once were.

Key reflection is that reporting has to drive the right conversations at the right times – it should be an enabler for that to happen.  So Topic based reporting, deep dives etc became more of a feature, with a focus on outcomes we want to achieve.

Programme Controls (Risk, Issue & Change)

  • Back to basics approach, setting out the where, when and how
  • Risks hadn’t always been expressed clearly – so move to clarify risks, owners and mitigation plans. Within this recognising that it’s ok to tolerate and live with some risks – the key thing is knowing what your risks are and making sure risk is part of the decision making process.
  • Change management process re-confirmed – impact assessment process improved
  • Risk reporting maybe lacked a bit of focus and cohesion – so more focus on crocodiles nearest the canoe – not always just the Red risks, some emerging will turn red soon if you’re not sighted to them. Risk reporting simplified and also started to focus on topics and themes

Quality & Assurance – Internal

Looking now at quality management:

  • We developed a gate strategy to provide a controlled and evidence based approach to decisions on progression through the delivery stages
  • Importance placed on understanding and acceptance of risk at each decision point.
  • We co-ordinated the gate sessions but recognised that some technical sessions were better facilitated by relevant SMEs (testing team for example) – PMO not always able to provide informed challenge /ask intelligent questions – but that’s ok as long as someone has this role and again risks are part of the decision making process.
  • On reflection, a wee bit slow to start, but we kept at it and started to see the value coming through. Teams became pro-active in calling for the gates and gathering the evidence, and Gates became recognised as important delivery milestones.

Quality & Assurance – External

I’ve already mentioned external assurance reviews such as Gateway, and here is a summary of the main sources of that external assurances.

PMO worked closely with the assurance providers to co-ordinate these reviews, in particular across the TAF, Gateway and Digital 1st assurance reviews.  Other SMEs lead on the statistical methodology side and Information Governance and Security.

The key reflection around external assurance is that it provided strong evidence on the health of the programme.  We found that the more you put into independent assurance and value the opportunity it provides, the more you get from it.  We worked in partnership with each assurance provider to tailor the reviews as much as possible to our specific programme and the key exam questions we faced into at each. Layering assurance activity alongside programme milestones is critical. Considering what the programme needs to know at what point shapes decision making on review coverage.

Our integrated assurance and approvals plan shows the width of external assurance we have undertaken since 2016, we have had over 40 reviews and 360 recommendations.

Workforce & Succession Planning (Resources)

Turning to look at how we managed resources:

  • Workforce plan was in place, but mostly reactory with limited forward planning. No end to end review of resource requirements across the programme had been done to date.
  • Needed to bring programme plan, resources and financial elements closer together and introduce challenge
  • New controls put in place covering the full lifecycle
  • Reporting became more specific, looking ahead and helping to plan around this. Helped to horizon scan for future resource risks but also identify current single point of failure risks and skills gaps Business case justifications become clearer and mapped to what we need to deliver to help the decision process around new / extended resources.


Benefits Management – Internal focus

I covered in an earlier slide the range of benefits that the Census data can enable – but while we can continue to promote the value of census data through case studies, we are not in direct control of the realisation of benefits.  This sits primarily with those who use the data.

But we are in control of benefits that we can realise within NRS from applying census capability (the expertise developed and enhanced during the census programme) outside of the census programme.  PMO is leading on this, for example we held a workshop with our Executive Management Board to:

a)confirm what census capability we had developed;

b)where this had already been applied elsewhere in NRS;

c)future opportunities to apply that capability across our portfolio of programmes and projects.

The categories of legacy benefits shown here reflects the capability we have derived from the census and can re-use elsewhere.  PMO is one of those capabilities and will be an enduring part of the NRS structure moving forward.

We also developed with SG DAO some case studies from the census programme across a range of topics – essentially with the aim of sharing with other public sector programmes some examples of good practice and our reflections and lessons learned.

Lead up to live Collect phase – governance evolves

So returning to the programme timeline, it’s now 2021 and we need to ensure our governance remains relevant to the current stage of the programme.  We evolved our governance again to recognise:

  • Design to Delivery – changing focus so re-assess what we needed at that stage of the programme
  • Release Management approach comes to the fore
  • Operational Readiness and critical success factors – all to be tracked to completion
  • Go-live checklist (programme level)
    • Are we ready?
    • How can we prove we are ready?
    • What level of risk are we carrying into Live

Go live decision approved through formal governance in Feb 2022.

Live Collect phase – governance evolves…. again

And then our governance changes again when we enter the live Collect phase where we are actually engaging with every household in the country.

Management Information is flowing in on a daily basis providing insight into what is happening in the field, there is a need for quick and rapid tactical / strategic responses. Daily Stand Up introduced to track progress against our day to day live operational plan and what response rates are across the country.

Gold, Silver and Bronze commands introduced to manage live incidents – scramble members of the programme team to work these through to resolution.

Lessons Learned – the 7th PMO element

We also formally recognised the co-ordinating role PMO has had on lessons learned.

  • I had originally co-ordinated evaluation of the 2019 rehearsal. Rolling forward to 2021 PMO developed guidance to all the Collect phase projects on how to prepare for evaluating the live phase and had an oversight role to ensure that each project produced a lessons learned & closure reports with recommendations for any future census operation.
  • PMO also developed a Survey Monkey to enable census field staff to share their experiences with us.
  • We also developed a Survey Monkey to capture the views of programme staff on our approach to managing the programme.
  • We have captured over 700 lessons so far ranging from low level coalface to more strategic points. Given the journey we have been on, it’s not surprising we also have a number of recommendations related to governance.
  • Governance related lessons learned have been mapped to Audit Scotland’s principles for a digital future – so we can look at these through that ‘best practice’ lens and ensure we have that best practice reference point as we look ahead to both the next Census and NRS’s wider portfolio of programmes and projects, many of which will be digital in nature.

Processing the returns to produce census data

So if you are still with me, we go back to the programme and following the Collect phase, we need to process the returns by applying a range of statistical methodologies to produce census data.  This is an extremely complex phase of the programme.

We worked in partnership with leading experts in this field and with our regulatory bodies to ensure we produce high quality census data.  Census data achieved the ‘National Statistics’ designation from the Office for Statistics Regulation in Sep, following which we published the first results from the Census.

Release 1A (14 Sep 2022)

So we can see here the first results which are focussed on the population estimate.  We published these at local authority level by sex and 5yr age groups, as well as a count of the number of households in Scotland (2.5m).  More releases to come in 2024 when we will publish data on the characteristics of Scotland’s population based on responses to the questions you all made.  So covering topics like:

  • Education
  • Health, disability and unpaid care
  • Housing
  • Labour market and travel to work

Ethnic group, national identity, language and religion and so on………

Controlled Closure – the 8th PMO element

And so to the very final element added to the PMO remit which is to co-ordinate the closure of the programme at end of 2024.  This slide is an extract from our approach to closure and confirms the scope of this activity and the role for the PMO across the next year.

This will culminate in a report being laid before parliament, the 2022 Census General Report, which will provide the chronological story of Scotland’s Census 2022, the lessons we have learned along the way, and a recommendation on the future of the Census in Scotland.

Reflections – staff views on Census governance

  • So some examples here of comments from programme staff that echo what I’ve said about the need to evolve governance as the programme moves through its delivery stages – recognising that we had significant issues in the early stages of the programme that made it difficult to get off to a good start.
  • Flexibility is very important, but doesn’t mean that we lose rigour or challenge, just that we are open to change and we move to make positive changes swiftly to benefit the programme.
  • Strong teamwork recognised, hadn’t always been the case, so important to work closely and support each other and avoid silo’s – governance approach can help with this.
  • Recognising how much we have learned about governance and the skills we have developed through a lot of blood, sweat and tears and that lived experience – so important to ensure we don’t lose that as we look ahead to delivering other programmes and projects in NRS.

And reflecting that we got things wrong at times and especially in the early stages.  Recognise that no governance model will be perfect, you will have issues along the way and you might need to re-set.  Recognising that decisions made earlier can have a lasting impact and it’s not always easy to manage that effectively.Overall, the census is a big and complex programme to deliver – it’s hard to run a programme of this size and impossible to get everything right.  But we try to improve as we go and learn quickly from our mistakes.

You’ll be glad that we have finally reached the last point of the presentation and that lunchtime is upon us.  I’d just like to finish by setting out some of my own personal reflections based on my experience of leading the PMO on the Scotland’ Census programme.

Hopefully some of this resonates with your own experiences


Was this article helpful?
0 out of 5 stars
5 Stars 0%
4 Stars 0%
3 Stars 0%
2 Stars 0%
1 Stars 0%
Please Share Your Feedback
How Can We Improve This Article?
Table of Contents