Making systems work

If you work with information technology in the federal government, you've probably found yourself thinking more about project management than you ever thought you would.

In recent months, officials from the Office of Management and Budget have declared that all projects with budgets of $5 million or more will have a dedicated, certified project manager. There are plans to hire and train up to 1,400 government project managers. And if you've gotten a business case back from OMB, then you are probably all too aware of any gaps in your project management.

But what exactly is a government leader to do? There isn't much consensus, though one idea is to train and certify employees as soon as possible.

Let's take a step back for a minute. Why is OMB so focused on project management? Officials believe many government programs are poorly managed or undermanaged. Many IT projects fail either by running over budget or off schedule, or by simply not delivering what they promised.

So the question is: Will training courses solve this fundamental problem?

There's an old adage that applies here: "Don't send a changed person back to an unchanged environment." If the culture of the organization hasn't changed — if there's no infrastructure to support better project management — how are all of these project managers supposed to improve the performance of government programs?

I would argue that training and certification are simple answers to a very complex problem. Are they important? Absolutely. Will they fix the problem? I doubt it.

Project management — or really program management when you consider the federal government's large and intricate programs — is a profession. Therefore, it has to be supported by an organization whose leaders are willing to think through uniform,

enterprise-level processes that they will use to address issues and make choices.

If we want a strong project management focus in the government, those processes must be shared, especially as agencies begin to adopt the new federal enterprise architecture.

You can find best practices that work. But it is essential that a centralized government agency adopt guidelines and provide direction so that individual agencies have a starting point when building their unique process infrastructure.

Finally, what about those program managers who are leaving the government and the veterans who have graduated to managing billion-dollar programs? How do they share what they've learned? Perhaps a federal program management council is needed.

I don't have all the answers, but I do know it's going to take a focused effort to build a solid program management infrastructure that spans federal agencies and creates systems for sharing knowledge.

Simply stated, training alone won't do it. There must be a commitment throughout the ranks to making program management a priority and providing the time and money to get it right and make real progress.

Leto is chief executive officer and president of Robbins-Gioia LLC of Alexandria, Va.

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