Project Management Institute

You really want to build that? The politics of project selection

Nancy Mattingly, Customer Relations, Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, Administration Building


Examinations of project failures are generally limited to specific breakdowns, such as project team miscommunication, engineering miscalculations, and inadequate budgeting of time or money within a single project. Little focus has been placed on what similarities are shared by significantly challenged projects.

We present a novel approach to evaluating government projects. By being able to ascertain an outcome matrix, whether as a client or a community, a project manager can allow for a more objective view of whether a project should be continued. This paper reviews several public government project—six failures and three unlikely successes. A charting process is used to compare antecedents with the outcomes of these projects. The factors for failures include: end product need, meeting project safety and construction requirements, public support for the project, sponsor strength, project’s financial sustainability, and the architect’s public profile. For the unlikely successes, risk and outstanding design are used instead of sponsor strength and meeting project safety requirements.

The major commonalities in failed projects were strong sponsorship, a high-profile architect, minimal financial sustainability, and a lack of need for the project and an indifferent public. When faced with such a reality, a manager should reevaluate the idea of continuing with the project.

In contrast, projects with successes had high risk as the unlikely commonality, as well outstanding design and high public support. These projects appear to have a greater balance between public support, financial viability, and need. Managers can use such charting tools to move a project with high failure ratios to one of greater balance. With this as a start, better analytical tools can be developed to evaluate potential failures.


Projects sporting a characteristically high public profile, albeit requiring large-scale investments, have been used time and again as a centerpiece for developing urban infrastructure or a city or a metropolitan area (Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, & Rothengatter, 2003). Such projects come with their own set of unique problems related to a variety of economic and socio-political constraints, uncertainties, and unbalanced effects, as have been noted by many researchers (Hall, 1980; Altshuler & Luberoff, 2003). Another universal trend that can be witnessed is the use of cultural attractors to (or hoping to) jump start and/or sustain urban development. This is often associated with the dazzling artifacts showcased by famous designers/architects (Easterling, 2005; Jencks, 2005; Sklair, 2006). ). These attributes underscore the importance of the project selection process to the overall success of such high-profile public projects.

Although the process of project selection has been widely studied in project management literature, only a few studies have investigated the factors influencing project selection as discussed below. Mohanty (1992) developed a project selection process by using the multiple-criteria, decision-making method and classifies the criteria influencing project selection into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. According to Mohanty (1992) criteria, the preference is to select projects that require minimum investment, require a low degree of competency, can be completed in the shortest time, and have the highest return potential. Thus, the most acceptable project is selected by comparing it with other existing proposed projects. Jiang and Klein (1999) studied project selection criteria based on strategic orientation and pointed out six groups of factors influencing project selection. However, due to the implementation of the strategic performance-based budgeting by the government, these factors need to be adapted and/or altered for a high-profile public project.

Whether it was a part of an airport expansion in the middle of nowhere, the freeway in front of a beautiful beach, or the embarrassing wobble on the Millennium Bridge, London – they all started out as somebody’s project. So, why do some project seem so perfect that one could never have imagined them never being part of the landscape, while some could be salvaged, and others collapsed into oblivion? This paper attempts to develop a system of charting as to why some major public projects that have fatal flaws, or lack even the basics of common sense are completed, and some that may fill a vital need are never even considered. It comes down to politics, ego, money, luck, and showmanship.

Project management professionals are taught to focus on the details of doing it right—making sure the project team has a good understanding of its varied roles; that the client has reasonable expectations; and that there are adequate time and money to complete the project as conceived. However, before any community, company, or project manager can rush to embrace a potential embarrassment, are there hints that a project may have more in common with disastrous projects of the past than is comfortable? And, if there are, what steps can to taken to move a project into a more secure profile?

Then, there are the unlikely successes. What do they have in common? In an era in which a project’s lure of jobs to a community is an almost overwhelming force, spending time and money on something that provides nothing positive after it is completed is not only wasteful, but takes funds away from areas in which these funds may be better allocated.

Project Boondoggles

The following is a review of six highly public projects in the modern era, which fall into the boondoggle category and what catapulted them into existence.

The Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA, USA

To quote the Seattle Times, “Workers had barely begun erecting the snaking steel beams that would hold up the woozy-looking “Experience Music Project,” when much of Seattle pounced to pronounce: Paul Allen’s rock-music museum was ugly.” Originally an homage to Seattle local rock musician, Jimi Hendrix, after a decade, there have been few visitors and exhibitions to the “Experience Music Project” (Exhibit 1). The project was provided with an additional sum to add a “Science Fiction Museum” and “Hall of Fame” in an effort to increase attendance.

The Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA, USA. (Sponsor: Paul Allen; Architect: Frank Gehry)

Exhibit 1: The Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA, USA. (Sponsor: Paul Allen; Architect: Frank Gehry)

Paul Allen, Bill Gates’ billionaire partner in the creation of Microsoft, provided over US$300 million for the project he wanted to build and it was built. When interviewed about the building’s appearance, its architect, Frank Gehry, irritably replied, “I look at a lot of buildings and consider them ugly. Most of them in fact.” (Seven, 2010) Mr. Gehry was vaulted to worldwide prominence with his hugely successful design of the museum in Bilbao, Spain. Having a structure by such a noted architect, to be constructed near the aging Seattle Space Needle, was most likely considered a significant coup. The building itself is so unusual and dramatic that people definitely looked at it; however, the public has yet to show enough interest in the exhibits to the point that they would pay to go inside.

The “Experience Music Project” is sustained by Mr. Allen's foundation, of which his sister is CEO; it isn't relevant whether or not the building is attractive, whether it was financially feasible, or whether or not Hendrix was a musical talent worthy of such a display. Mr. Allen is a substantive citizen of Seattle, Hendrix was a Seattle native, and his music is much admired by Mr. Allen.

The Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

Completed in 1973, the now hailed iconic structure had its start after World War II, when Australians decided they needed a world-class opera house (Sydney Opera, 2010). An international competition was held for the design with 234 entries. Construction was started in 1959 at the insistence of the local government, two years ahead of the architect, Jørn Utzon's proposed schedule. Utzon had complained that the technology did not exist to build the building as designed and he wanted more time to address the engineering challenges (Media Bistro, 2010).

The construction problems were endless. Years were spent reworking the design of the roof of the opera house—the shells were too heavy for supporting columns that had already been built (Exhibit 2), so the columns had to be demolished and rebuilt. There were numerous other cost overruns and delays due to the fact that the design required the development of more sophisticated construction technology than what was available (Rogers, 2005).

The Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia (Sponsor: New South Wales; Architect: Jørn Utzon)

Exhibit 2: The Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia (Sponsor: New South Wales; Architect: Jørn Utzon)

Utzon quit in 1965, and the project was finished by a group of Australian architects. In order to bring the project to completion, these architects changed the scope of the building's interior so that it did not reflect much of the original design. The original projected cost was US$7 million; the actual cost ballooned to US$102 million—15 times more than the estimate and along with it a quarter of a century of political fights, frustration, and a very public embarrassment (Media Bistro, 2010).

Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Tacoma, WA, USA

Referred to as “the Pearl Harbor of bridge design” in one article, the spectacular collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, nicknamed “Galloping Gertie” for its tendency to move vertically during construction, in 7 November 1940, four months after its opening, ranks as one of the all time project failures (Exhibit 3). Washington State engineer Clark Eldridge proposed an US$11 million conventional suspension bridge for the span. The Federal Public Works Administration in 1938 thought the plan was too expensive and approved a designed by Leon Moisseiff, which was constructed for US$6.4 million (Washington University Libraries Special Collections, 2009).

Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Tacoma, WA (Sponsor: Washington State; Engineer: Leon Moisseiff)

Exhibit 3: Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Tacoma, WA (Sponsor: Washington State; Engineer: Leon Moisseiff)

The bridge was designed to carry light traffic and had only two lanes; thus, with the use of minimal girders, the construction costs were substantially reduced. Because the deck of the bridge was so narrow, it was insufficiently rigid and moved around by winds. The alternate halves of the span would rise and fall several feet in 4 to 5 second intervals. The Washington Toll Bridge Authority made wind tunnel tests to come up with a solution for the oscillations; however, the bridge collapsed five days after the tests were done (Irvine, 1999).

The St. Louis Arch, St. Louis, MO, USA

The Arch consists of a stainless steel skin covering a “sandwich” of two carbon steel walls with reinforced concrete in the middle (Exhibit 4). In September 2010, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated newly released documents from the National Park Service, which said that, “severe corrosion has continued inside the Gateway Arch with no significant effort to try to stop, fix or record it.” It goes on to say in one report, “construction workers told current engineers that the Arch was designed to be maintenance free” (Pistor, 2010a). According to a 2010 Historic Structure Report, “The designers of the Arch provided no means of exterior access for future maintenance.”

The St. Louis Arch, St. Louis, MO (Sponsor: U.S. Dept. of the Interior; Architect: Eero Saarinen)

Exhibit 4: The St. Louis Arch, St. Louis, MO (Sponsor: U.S. Dept. of the Interior; Architect: Eero Saarinen)

R. Craig Jenner, president of J.E.I. Metallurgical Inc. said, “the report indicated that possible corrosion within the steel walls is bleeding through failed welds… some of the corrosion is taking place very aggressively… corrosion is much like a cancer. If you leave it alone it will eat the steel up” (Pistor, 2010b). The Post-Dispatch went on to say there was a Park Service report (National Park Service) in 2006 entitled the “Gateway Arch Corrosion Investigation” that was withdrawn a day after its release to the public, and the Post-Dispatch was only able to obtain a copy through the Freedom of Information Act (Pistor, 2010b).

The Arch is a post World War II Park Service conceived memorial. An architectural competition was held in 1947, and of the 147 entries this design was unanimously chosen from the finalists. It took until 1963, a major implementation gap, before construction began (Marketplace Morning Report, 2010). With the passage of 16 years, the political pressure to get the monument built must have been significant. The question that arises is: Did no one working on the project notice that maintenance might become an issue in the future? Or, was the pressure so great to build it that project review did not come into play?

The Millennium Bridge, London, England

Winner of a competition held by the Southwark council in 1996 the design of the Millennium Bridge was done by then Sir Robert Foster (now Lord Foster) and his partner, Sir Anthony Caro. Hailed by engineers as “a pure expression of engineering structure, with a sleek look like a blade of light,” the bridge closed two days after its opening due to an uncomfortable swaying motion, dubbed a “wobble” (Science Daily, 2005). Construction began in 1999 by Monberg Thorsen and Sir Robert McAlpine. The bridge was paid for by the Millennium Commission and the London Bridge Trust (Dallard, 2001).

Dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II in May 2000, the bridge opened two months late (its opening was supposed to coincide with that of the Tate Modern), on 10 June 2000 (Exhibit 5). It was closed on 12 June 2000. The bridge's “wobble“ was resolved with the retrofitting of 37 energy dissipating dampers to control the horizontal movement and 52 mass dampers to control the vertical movement (Science Daily, 2005). It appears as if everyone in the top echelons of the project had a title. So, was this in itself so intimidating to the project managers involved that they didn't consider pointing out the possible flaws in the design?

The Millennium Bridge, London, England (Sponsor: Bridge House Estates, City of London; Designer: Sir Robert Foster, now Lord Foster)

Exhibit 5: The Millennium Bridge, London, England (Sponsor: Bridge House Estates, City of London; Designer: Sir Robert Foster, now Lord Foster)

BART Train to Oakland Airport Connector, Oakland, CA, USA

Even though Bay Area Rapid Transit lost the US$70 million in previously awarded federal funding for its extension to the Oakland Airport, on 16 September 2010, they went ahead and reaffirmed their contract with Flatiron/Parsons to move forward on the US$500 million, 3-mile extension of the system (Trautman, 2010). BART spokesman, Linton Johnson, has aggressively stated that BART will continue to pursue construction of the extension to Oakland International (East Bay News, 2009). Why?

There is currently a regular bus shuttle service from the BART station to the Oakland Airport at US$3.00 per trip. These shuttle buses are not fully used and there is no demand for additional, more costly (at a US$5.00 estimated fare per trip) service. There is no need to build the connector, there is no public demand for the service, it is not financially viable, but it was a political promise to the people of the area that they would get construction jobs from this project. The funds were eventually restored and ground breaking occurred in October 2010 (Trautman, 2010).

Project Boondoggle Commonalities

These project boondoggles did not occur in a vacuum. In each project, the problems were evident well before the project was completed; however, the politics of the project was such that the power of the sponsor pushed them to completion over common-sense concerns. The following is an attempt to chart the issues that were significant markers to each of these projects (Exhibit 6).

Project Boondoggle Commonality Chart

Exhibit 6: Project Boondoggle Commonality Chart

With this type of charting it is possible to see if a project has more aspects in common with projects that have gone badly. Purposely using such information, a project can be restructured into one that has a higher probably of success by controlling some of the risk factors at the onset.


With the above scoring,] whether the structure is needed or wanted, or has any realistic financial sustainability seems to be completely irrelevant to the project going forward. Even the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was not deemed to have been a high need structure, because it was designed for “light traffic” and at the time of its collapse only two people, who escaped unharmed, one vehicle, and a small dog (which fell to its death), were actually on the bridge. The Millennium Bridge, which connects Bankside with the City of London, was built in concert with the opening of the Tate Modern Gallery for millennium celebrations. While the Sydney Opera House has become a symbol of Australia, with its great success as a tourist attraction, the turmoil that occurred during its construction seems to all have been forgotten. There is absolutely no “need” for the BART extension to Oakland Airport, and no one, except Paul Allen, would argue that Jimi Hendrix needs to have a US$300 million monument.

A strong, powerful sponsor and a high-profile architect seem to be the two commonalities to getting questionable projects built. The political leaders of Seattle are not going to challenge Paul Allen over a Frank Gehry building—they need Allen's support and they need his money. He owns professional sports franchises and he employs thousands of people. It is not politically expedient to offend someone of that stature. The U.S. Park Service is a powerful political entity. Is the Arch safe? The U.S. Park Service is part of the government—they don't have to tell you, as evidenced by the difficulty it was for the local newspaper to obtain records pertaining to the Arch. As for the BART project and Oakland International Airport, a US$500 million construction project is significant political “pork.” It's another “bridge to nowhere.” Local politicians found a way to build it whether it made any sense or not. Oakland needs those funds for transit. AC Transit, Oakland's local bus service, is suffering from severe budget shortfalls and service is being cut. The entire customer service call center for AC Transit was outsourced to a firm in Connecticut. Those were local jobs lost; would it not have been more appropriate to have spent that money on a transit project serving more members of the community?

Unlikely Project Successes

Three projects, which seemed highly problematic at the time, turned out to be major successes: the Golden Gate Bridge, Hearst Castle (as a tourist attraction), and the Statue of Liberty.

The Statue of Liberty, New York, NY, USA

When it comes to looking a gift horse in the mouth, few match the gift of Liberty Enlightening the World, better known as the Statue of Liberty, the iconic symbol of freedom and the United States. French politician, Edouard Rene de Laboulaye proposed that the French pay for the statue as a gift to the United States, with the caveat that the United States would pay for the pedestal and provide a site. There was intense criticism of the statue itself, as well as the idea that the United States would have to pay for the pedestal. Fundraising efforts began in 1882 and did not go well. Grover Cleveland, then governor of New York, vetoed a bill to provide US$50,000 for the project in 1884. The U.S. Congress could not pass a US$100,000 appropriation bill for the pedestal. Politics was working against the project being completed. With only US$3000 left, work on the project was stopped; however, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World became a strong and powerful sponsor. He pledged to print the name of every contributor, no matter how small the amount, to the project in his paper and donations began pouring in. By August, 1885, US$102,000 had been raised from 120,000 donors. Most of the donations were for less than one dollar (Khan, 2010). The power of a strong, well-placed sponsor cannot be underestimated.

Hearst Castle Tourist Area, San Simeon, CA, USA

With William Randolph Hearst's death in 1951, neither the family nor the Hearst Corporation seemed to know what to do with the white elephant at San Simeon on the California coast. The family rarely visited the extremely expensive to maintain estate, built by Hearst in the 1920s and attempts to sell it were unsuccessful. The Corporation then came up with the idea of donating the main buildings to the State of California and retaining the thousands of acres of land surrounding the structures (Aidala, 1981). The state was at first derided for considering such an outrageous gift, located in the middle of nowhere, with the strings attached that the family could still have access to some residences, with the state paying all the maintenance costs. However, a project plan was developed for a small visitors’ center and parking lot. These modest accruements were built with the idea of charging a fee for tours. A tour concept was developed in 1952, but it was not until December 1957 that the terms for the actual transfer were enacted, and the first paid tours started in June 1958. Visitors were taken up the long winding road to the mansion via shuttle buses (Kastner, 2000). In the years since, the Hearst Castle has been the largest money maker in the state park system. The willingness of the park system to take on the risk has been very well rewarded.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA, USA

The Golden Gate Bridge may appear to have been a brilliant idea in the right place and at the right time. In actuality, though, it was a high risk project done for economic gain that played out better than any of its sponsors ever dreamed. Developers in northern California trumpeted the idea of the “Redwood Highway,” which would run north from San Francisco through Marin County, all the way to Crescent City in Del Norte County, then on to Oregon. The road was to bring prosperity to northern California by spurring the growth of automobile and truck traffic. The last mile connecting Marin County to San Francisco was across the Golden Gate Straits, which was an extremely challenging site (Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, 2009).

The State of California did not want to build the bridge, so a special district was formed to take over the project. It was deemed that the bridge could never attract enough traffic to cover the cost of construction. The financing was considered high risk, as was the engineering. Bridge engineer, Joseph Strauss first came up with a very unwieldy cantilever-suspension design, which San Francisco City Engineer, Michael O'Shaughnessy said looked like “an inverted rat trap.” What was rather ominous was that the Leon S. Moisseiff was a consulting engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge before he came in with the low bid for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, 2009).

However with a significantly improved design released in 1930, the project received permission to build on what was then still a military base. Bridge opponents filed suit against the bond measure, saying it was unfair and illegal. Even when the legal hurdles were overcome, there were challenges to the viability of the structure. After the public was reassured regarding those concerns, US$35 million in bonds were marketed as a relief for unemployment, and with a two-thirds majority vote, the measure passed on 4 November 1930 (Dyble, 2009).

The bridge came in under budget at US$32 million, and bond holders were repaid in full in 1950s. The bridge has made a profit, even with bond payments and interest, every year since its opening. It has also become one of the most recognizable structures in the world and is visited by 85% of tourists who come to San Francisco (Dyble, 2009).

The Commonalities Among Unlikely Project Successes

The results, with the exception of risk, are fairly even. A balance in charting may prove to support a workable project (Exhibit 7).

Unlikely Project Success Commonalities Chart

Exhibit 7: Unlikely Project Success Commonalities Chart

Without a dominant sponsor's or high-profile architect's ego, success isn't assured, but rather seems to allow a project to find its own way. It is not Paul Allen or Frank Gehry who is succeeding, but the project itself. It wasn't the no-name architect who came up with little more than a shed and parking lot at the base of Hearst Castle who succeeded in making the tourist attraction a viable project, but the project itself. The Golden Gate Bridge could have been ugly, but that ugly bridge would still have served the need to traffic across the opening to San Francisco Bay. An interesting aside is that Joseph Strauss. who is generally credited with the design of the suspension span, fired Charles Ellis, vice president of Strauss Engineering in charge of bridge design, and demanded that Ellis turn over all his work to an assistant, while Ellis was away on vacation, just prior to the submission of the revised design in 1930. Ellis received no credit for his role in the design of the bridge. What might have been a ruthless theft of credit may have been what contributed to the lack of ego problems involving a designer at the time.

Also of note is the high level of risk associated with these projects. The Statue of Liberty could have been a hideous intrusion into New York harbor, no one might have visited Hearst Castle, and the Golden Gate Bridge, with Leon Moisseiff as part of the engineering team, could have gone the way of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. High risk is not something to be looked upon favorably, these are the exceptions, and innumerable high-risk projects have disappeared into oblivion. Again, the key to success may be in the balance.


Once a project has begun, project managers can only build the best project they can with the resources they have. With the charting suggested in this article, it may be possible for managers to do an analysis before significant funds are spent to examine whether the project is as viable as the sponsors believe.

A successful project also fulfills a need. That need does not have to be tangible. The Statue of Liberty's meaning is way more than its parts; however, the construction of the statue's base fulfilled a very specific need—it held the statue. The Sydney Opera House is a construction project boondoggle, and it is questionable whether it is even a very good opera house, but it has become an Australian icon, so it fulfilled a role other than what was originally intended, which accounts for its success.

The Golden Gate Bridge is more than a roadway across a bay; however, it was conceived as an end to a financial goal, and in that it has succeeded. Hearst Castle brings in more money than any other California park service attraction. Their monetary success is way beyond what was originally envisioned; however, this cannot be guaranteed. A project should have a realistic goal, if the end product is more, then it's a bonus.

Most importantly, good projects make good sense. The Sydney Opera House may be a notable exception, but its success after the fact excuses it. Designing a structure that cannot be maintained, such as the St. Louis Arch, makes no sense. Building a museum that has minimal appeal to the general audience, such as the Experience Music Project, makes no sense. It's the underlying factors behind the project that determine whether it is viable.

Creating this new method of charting allows for another look at a project before it begins. Preliminary work, as shown by this charting, indicates that the factors involved with the creation of the project itself should hold some element of balance in order for the project to succeed. An actual need, making good sense, public support, realistic goal, lack of ego, and good design, all within balance, with some level of risk, may be indicators as to whether a project will work. These are the things that those in management need to examine prior to taking on a project, and management at all levels, whether it's in city planning, zoning, design, or engineering. This type of charting may provide the back up for a project manager to work with a sponsor and/or politicians in taking a project with questionable success indicators and changing it into one with a higher probability of success. With mistakes becoming more and more costly not only in funds, but in robbing the community of resources that can be used elsewhere, in the destruction of usable space, and in quality of life, any additional review may be of benefit.

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© 2011, Loomba and Mattingly
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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