Program management falls short

Peer pressure relief

Many respondents to a Council for Excellence in Government survey on program management challenges said they valued discussions with peers as a more effective tool for improving outcomes than the evaluations from the Government Accountability Office or the Office of Management and Budget. Information sharing is now possible in new ways that go beyond more traditional methods such as attending seminars and joining professional associations.

Ryan Christensen, manager of Nebraska’s project management office, said one of the easiest and most effective collaboration methods he’s found is to conduct Web surveys using an application called Zoomerang. Other applications include SurveyGizmo, SurveyMonkey and LimeSurvey, an open-source alternative.

“I can survey other states by saying ‘Here’s our need, what are you guys doing?’ ” Christensen said, adding that he’s received very good feedback online and in follow-up conversations in response to his efforts.

— Alan Joch

Editor's note: This story was updated at 9 a.m. Sept. 11, 2008. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has change.

If major government successes such as the interstate highway system and landing astronauts on the moon represented the Golden Age of program management, the past 10 years may go down as the Era of Frustration.

Government executives polled recently by Deloitte Research said the public sector’s ability to execute large projects has steadily declined in the past 30 years. They cited a particularly steep drop-off during the past decade, symbolized by high-profile stumbles in the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, the Coast Guard’s $24 billion Deepwater program, Boston’s Big Dig and the reconstruction effort in Iraq.

Rightly or wrongly, when problems occur, the blame often lands on the desks of program managers. Meanwhile, in addition to having to cope with ever-increasing oversight from Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, those managers must serve multiple stakeholders and scramble to stay current with the latest technologies, contracting models and management best practices.

“We’re trying to achieve all these new initiatives as our customers are becoming more demanding because they’re now becoming technically savvy,” said Ryan Christensen, manager of Nebraska’s project management office.

The situation may worsen as agencies push to expand second-generation e-government with new Web applications that give constituents additional ways to interact and perform electronic transactions with agencies.

Today it’s not just a handful of technology-oriented agencies, such as NASA and the Defense Department, that require information technology-trained program managers. Virtually every department is vying for managers who bring a wide range of sophisticated expertise.

“Today’s federal program managers really need to be adept at policy, technology, and a whole lot of blocking and tackling,” said Anirudh Kulkarni, managing principal at consulting firm Customer Value Partners. “There are a lot of things that we are throwing at today’s program managers that, frankly, they have not been prepared for.”

Who’s to blame?
How bad is the federal government’s program management performance? One measure comes from OMB’s Management Watch List, which in OMB’s most recent report identified 413 IT projects worth about $25.2 billion as being poorly planned, poorly performing, or both.

More problems were highlighted this month when a DOD memo surfaced that criticized the department’s contracting officers and program managers for inconsistently and inappropriately adhering to earned value management (EVM) requirements intended as early warnings to problems in contracts valued at $20 million or more.

There’s plenty of blame for why problems happen. For their part, federal program managers say they’re often victims of forces they can’t control.

In a recent Council for Excellence in Government survey that Management Concepts conducted, program managers said they lacked training for key skills, such as risk management, overseeing budgets and finances, or working with multiple stakeholders and committees of Congress.

Concerning what would help them do their jobs better, nearly 80 percent of the respondents called for increased budgets and resources, while 65 percent thought additional staff would improve outcomes. A similar percent said they would benefit from bigger investments in IT.

Respondents also chafed under OMB’s time-consuming reporti ng requirements. One program manager said, “I’m spending more time feeding measurement systems than focusing on strategic decisions and investments that will produce future results.”

Others are sympathetic to these complaints, but say they don’t tell the entire story.

“If agencies are doing proper project management, reporting to OMB is just a byp roduct of what they are already doing,” said John Madej, civil division president at management consultant Robbins-Gioia. “Those that see it as a burden are typically not doing the proper project management [activities] and that’s why they see it as additional work.”

Contracts alone aren’t the solution
Government watchdogs have sought help for program problems from a variety of contracting vehicles to fix cost and schedule overruns. In the recent past, agencies turned to cost-plus contracts that combined a fixed fee for services added to equipment costs to control contractors. More recently, mandates to use performance-based contracts promoted financial incentives or disincentives for meeting, exceeding or missing contract demands.

However, program managers said no single contracting vehicle is right for every situation. For example, performance-based approaches burden some agencies with responsibilities that staff members haven’t been trained to take on.

“We have to define incentives to promote the right kind of behaviors that we want from service providers to get the right business outcomes for our organization,” said Linda Cureton, chief information officer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “You also have to be savvier in terms of articulating requirements and outcomes to your service providers. We have to understand financial management and contract management along with our business and communications skills.”

Is training in this comprehensive skill set readily available to agencies? Cureton says no.
“The outcomes and business orientation isn’t necessarily bred into my network engineers, and it’s difficult to go out and find that kind of training,” she said. “We need what we dub ‘charm school’ to make the technical wonk a well-rounded individual that has the business knowledge needed to interface in the appropriate way with service providers.”

Now, most agencies have to settle for on-the-job training.

“That’s difficult, especially in performance-based contracts, because you end up making mistakes,” Cureton said. “There have been a number of very public counter examples to good performance-based contracting, which in my opinion has probably given [the strategy] a bad rap. But I think the cause is the scarcity of good training.”

Agencies can also improve the chances for performance-based contracting success by honing in on a small number of critical performance indicators, such as customer satisfaction, said Scott Ferguson, senior vice president of the civilian sector at Apptis, a systems integrator. “If a customer is not happy, no matter what your network uptime is, you’re not really doing a good job supporting the enterprise.”
The best option is when agencies can automate the data gathering for these indicators, which reduces the time the management team needs to collect results, Ferguson said.

“You can then spend more time analyzing the metrics and improving your performance rather than preparing pieces of paper that collect dust over time,” he said.

Systemic fault lines
At the same time, the year-to-year uncertainty of government budgetary processes does not help the situation. Programs are often saddled with delays and performance shortfalls soon after they’re launched.

“A big project is going to take a number of years to finish. If [the money you receive each year] continually changes, then you keep having to change your plan, which might stretch out your program and cost you more money,” said Bill McNally, NASA’s assistant administrator for procurement and deputy chief acquisition officer. “It’s the No. 1 problem at NASA and, I th k, throughout the federal government.”

One problem is that agencies try to tackle 100 percent of a project instead of biting off small pieces, Madej said.

“You make it more complex by going for the full-blown solution instead of getting 80 percent done and then as money comes in say, ‘OK, now we can do B, C and D,’” Madej said. “Some of our clients have been pretty successful that way.”

Congress’ inability to resolve spending fights has resulted in the federal government’s ongoing continuing resolution, which is another impediment to program success. If a project’s Exhibit 300, the business-case justification required by OMB, isn’t approved, the sponsoring agency technically isn’t eligible for funding, noted one contractor who requested anonymity for fear of losing government business.

“However, funding hasn’t stopped under the continuing resolution, so agencies say, ‘You can keep telling me I’m doing badly, but if there are no repercussions for failure, what the hell?’ It’s a growing attitude with some key agency personnel,” the contractor said.

Finally, the overuse of rebaselining, the revision of goals, milestones and other program criteria can also impair successful results in large projects. A Government Accountability Office report found 48 percent of the federal government’s major IT projects have been rebaselined, with 51 percent of those revised at least twice and 11 percent altered at least four times.

The report also states that large agencies rebaselining policies don’t follow best practices such as following a formal process for creating new baselines.

But GAO didn’t place all the blame with program managers. Inconsistent rebaselining policies result partly from OMB’s lack of guidance in specifying the elements of these policies.

Some program management consultants warned that program critics shouldn’t use rebaselining as a scapegoat. Agencies legitimately rebaseline when, for example, new technologies or processes promise to shorten implementation schedules and save money.

And if budgets are reduced two or three years into a program, agencies have little choice but to adjust their plans.

“There is the triple constraint you have to deal with, which is time, scope and cost,” said Bill Damaré, regional vice president of ESI International's government sector. “So if one of those constraints moves, all of the other two have to move as well.”

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