Growing government program managers

VA created in-house training program to fill a talent shortage

Department of Veterans Affairs officials found themselves in a quandary a few years ago when they faced a shortage of experienced program managers. Should they try to pull talent from other agencies or grow their own?

VA officials decided to take the harder route — the latter option. Two years later, their efforts are paying off.

Leaders of the largest civilian department, with more than 235,000 employees, decided to move ahead with their own program to develop program managers certified at Level III, the highest level.

The program now produces a cadre of program managers with the technical skills to understand and complete the Office of Management and Budget's Exhibit 300, the document used to justify every dollar spent on information technology projects.

Federal IT professionals, students in the program pipeline and graduates find themselves at the cutting edge of new government standards for succeeding at project management. "We are light-years beyond where we were," said Marie Causley, director of the Veterans Benefits Administration's Project Management Office.

Causley and Charles Warner, director of the IT Program and Project Management Service at the VA's Office of Information and Technology, are leading the VA's efforts to develop program managers.

"We have needed to train more people each year," Warner said, who estimated that he needs Level III program managers to run about 60 Exhibit 300 projects.

"We are trying to give it a holistic look — people, processes, tools, training and certifying," he said.

The sooner the VA trains more managers, the better because it faces pressure to maximize IT funding and prevent projects from failing or exceeding their budgets.

"The whole discipline of OMB's business case Exhibit 300 process was a catalyst for us," said Ed Meagher, the VA's deputy chief information officer. "We've got to get our internal act together. And it is one more reason why the discipline for the business case model has been so valuable."

Last month the department held a conference in Atlanta for 350 VA employees interested in program management and received positive feedback, Warner said.

By directing employees to the most relevant certification programs and offering training in areas such as leadership, risk management, cost and schedules, and contract management, the VA focuses IT employees on what they need to do to succeed.

"There's always a need for continuous training [because by] offering this, people do leave," Warner said. "We want to be able to grow the crop of up-and-coming [program managers] at the VA."

Warner estimated that he needs at least two senior-level program managers for each of the 60 Exhibit 300 programs in the pipeline, and he needs more to work on other major projects.

ESI, in association with George Washington University, conducts training for Level III program managers. The university awards a master's certificate in program management when they complete seven rigorous courses.

The VA pays for the training — about $4,200 per person — and is responsible for prioritizing who takes the courses.

"I was a program manager, but I didn't have the official training," said Rick Chapman, who has worked at the VA in IT since 1980 and became a Level III program manager last year.

"We thought we all were program managers, but then we took the courses and realized we weren't," he said. "You find out quickly that you are not."

Chapman, now an IT supervisor at the VA's National Cemetery Administration, said supervisors previously learned on the job about program management.

"Now, there is a whole lot of planning that goes on upfront," he said. "You have a greater appreciation of what needs to be executed to do it the right way. And you know where the weak points are and address them early on."

Chapman also said Warner's shop offers help that never existed before and a reliable infrastructure for program managers. But Chapman isn't the only program manager who supports training for the VA's IT executives.

Howard Green, program manager for the department's HealtheVet program, an e-records system slated for modernization and expansion if Congress approves the funding, said there are challenges ahead to comply with Office of Management and Budget spending guidelines.

"But it is definitely beneficial," Green said. "It creates a certain level of expectation right from the start. Everyone knows what the essentials are."

Industry also recognizes the need to develop better program managers, said Mike Nicholson, an adviser to the Industry Advisory Council, which is planning to launch a program manager committee shortly.

"We see the need for raising the capabilities and maturity of project managers in the federal government," Nicholson said. "The government lacks a unique professional identity for those who manage projects. We don't have a common terminology. These are things that industry can help with, bringing expertise and staff power to help out."

Warner said he believes that the VA's program will keep growing as more IT executives realize that the certification will help their careers.

"There's always a need to develop folks internally," Warner added. "Many folks will be project team members and evolve into program managers."

Those outside the VA agree. Vance Hitch, the Justice Department's CIO, said recently that the best way to learn to be a good program manager is to be part of a well-run project.

Moving up

The number of project managers at the Department of Veterans Affairs has grown dramatically because of a concerted effort within the department to train and certify them. Here's a look at the numbers:

  • In fiscal 2003, the VA had 83 project managers certified at Level III, the highest level.
  • In fiscal 2004, the number grew to 161, a 94 percent increase.
  • So far in 2005, the VA has increased the number to 233, a 45 percent increase compared with last year's total.

The number of employees who have obtained the Project Management Institute's Project Management Professional certifications has also increased since fiscal 2003, when 9 employees were certified. That number jumped to 16 in fiscal 2004 and 72 this fiscal year.

How it works

The federal government has three levels of program managers based on levels of responsibility. They are:

  • Level I — Managing a project within a division, bureau or agency.
  • Level II — Managing an agencywide systems integration program.
  • Level III — Leading a governmentwide high-risk systems integration project.

Source: Interagency Resources Management Conference

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