The Brexit Project


The Need for a Project-Based Approach

Martin Hopkinson

United Kingdom

(15th July 2016)

The result of the British European Union (EU) referendum in June 2016 launched the largest UK project that we may see in our lifetimes. The electorate has set the government the objective of leaving the EU. Project completion is likely to be two years after the UK declares intention to leave under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This article uses Association for Project Management (APM) and UK government guidance in order to identify issues with its governance and management that should be considered moving forwards.

Project Objectives

Although leaving the EU is an unambiguous high level project objective, much has yet to be decided about the level of detail below this. For example, it is uncertain as to whether the UK should remain in the European single market. Similarly, there is much debate as to the nature of future immigration controls and the consequences that these might have for UK citizens living in other EU countries. Moreover, since the EU is likely to continue to require membership of the single market to be conditional on the free movement of people, trade-offs will be required when setting objectives at a more detailed level.

A key issue with the UK’s post referendum position is that a decision has been taken to implement the Brexit project before the project has itself been adequately defined. The conventional project approach to avoiding this mistake is to use a project lifecycle model with planned phases and gate review decisions to govern the iterative development of project objectives and manage the associated risk and trade-offs. The Association for Project Management (APM) lifecycle provides an example of this principle by identifying the need for concept and definition phases prior to project implementation 1. Full commitment to a project would not normally be given until these initial two phases had been completed successfully.

In the current circumstances, I would argue that David Cameron was right to delay the Article 50 declaration. At the time of writing, Theresa May has just replaced him as Prime Minister (PM). The early indications are that she will not make the Article 50 declaration until the government is better prepared. This would give the government vital time to define and plan to achieve the Brexit project’s objectives at the appropriate level of detail before its implementation phase.

Points to consider before the UK declares intention to leave the EU under Article 50

Declaring intention to leave under Article 50 exposes the relevant nation to the risk that the EU can deem it to have left two years later regardless of subsequent events. Since there might be no turning back from this decision, it should be regarded as being the point at which the government has committed the country to the Brexit project implementation phase.   The UK government should thus be assured that the project plan is robust and that its risk implications are acceptable to the country before making the declaration.

Risks that are dependent upon the Brexit solution and its implementation could include:

  • the need for and outcome of a second Scottish independence referendum,
  • the effect on the Northern Ireland peace process of any new controls over the freedom of movement of people and goods across the Irish border,
  • the effect on national security arrangements, and
  • failure to achieve pre-existing government objectives promised to the electorate in the Conservative party manifesto during the 2015 general election.

To disregard such risks would be to treat leaving the EU as being of supreme importance, in effect trumping all other issues within the government’s portfolio of responsibilities. Although the constitutional implications of the referendum result are uncertain, it would seem unlikely that this would be an acceptable approach.

Although the new PM could make UK’s Article 50 the declaration immediately, a sound project governance process should require the executive to have reviewed a well-defined solution and risk-robust business case at the main project approval point. Given that so little progress has been made to date, the Article 50 declaration will need to be delayed if significant Brexit-related risks are to be managed effectively. This approach would be consistent with the UK Treasury’s Green Book 2, which opens with the statement that “All new policies, programmes and projects, whether revenue, capital or regulatory, should be subject to comprehensive but proportionate assessment, wherever it is practicable, so as best to promote the public interest”.


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About the Author

Martin Hopkinson

United Kingdom

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Martin Hopkinson
is the Director of Risk Management Capability Limited and has 30 years’ experience as a project manager, project risk management specialist and consultant. His experience has been gained across a wide variety of industries and engineering disciplines and includes multi-billion pound projects and programmes.

Martin’s first book, The Project Risk Maturity Model, concerns the risk management process. His contributions to Association for Project Management (APM) guides such as Directing Change and Sponsoring Change reflect his belief in the importance of project governance and business case development.

In his new book Net Present Value and Risk Modelling for Projects he brings these subjects together by showing how NPV and risk modelling techniques can be used to optimise projects and support project approval decisions. (To learn more about the book, click here.)