Miller: Good government

Could Independent Program Oversight be a new model for improving the success of IT programs?

We can think of government in many ways. It is a group of elected and appointed public officials who work for government departments and agencies. It is a set of laws, regulations and policies that help us govern as a people. It is the societal foundation for our democracy that gives us the freedoms that we treasure.

From a business perspective, though, we can think of government as a set of programs. And we can describe the purpose of government as the efficient and effective management of those programs to achieve established objectives and planned outcomes. In other words, good government can be thought of as the successful management of programs that benefit the people and businesses of this country.

Given that perspective, the question we must ask ourselves is: “Do we manage well?” Do we serve our fellow citizens well as stewards and managers of our country’s resources and capabilities?

The answer is easily found in reports issued by the Government Accountability Office, agency inspector generals and Congress. Those sources tell consistent stories of programs that are significantly over budget and late in delivering expected outcomes — all at a great cost to the taxpayers of this country.

The government is not alone. In a recent study of the private sector, the Standish Group reported that two-thirds of major technology projects run into trouble, take three times or longer to complete and cost three times as much to deliver. Worst of all, the projects deliver only 40 percent of the features promised.

What is perplexing about this legacy of mismanagement is that we seem to have what we need to avoid failure. We have a long history of lessons-learned and access to a proven and accepted business discipline called program management. So why do we continue to struggle and fail?

A legacy of mismanagement
We fail because we don’t make good decisions. Here are several reasons for this.
  • Decision-support information and data is often inaccurate, biased, unhelpful, untimely and/or nonexistent.
  • No single office or individual, who is free of bias, is steadily and unrelentingly focused on the cost, schedule and performance objectives of the program.
  • Highly experienced and skilled program managers are in short supply on government and prime-contractor teams.
  • No one is currently responsible for fair and unbiased coordination of multiple entities, including contractors and subcontractors.
  • There is no readily available source to provide real-time, independent advice, assessments and evaluations of programperformance.
  • Contractor employees may have a bias caused by conflicts of interest.
  • Our decision-making is flawed by cognitive biases and organizational pressures to make a case to win investment dollars. Daniel Kahneman, a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and a 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, argues that delusional optimism undermines executive decision-making.

The answer
So how do we make good decisions? The answer is simple and begins with the roles we play.

For many reasons, we have experimented with different balances between public- and private-sector responsibilities. I say experimented because we never quite know where to draw the line to ensure a successful partnership and program. Is the government responsible for the success of a contracted program, or is the contractor? Or is the contractors’ contractors? Who is accountable when projects fail? We don’t seem to know the answers. When a program fails or flounders, we are quick to point fingers at everyone.

What is the optimum balance between public- and private-sector responsibilities and accountabilities? What is the inherently governmental role of public-sector officials in achieving program success? I suggest it is setting program objectives and making informed decisions. Government officials are not expected to make perfect decisions — just informed ones. Good judgment is repeatedly making informed decisions over time. The way I like to say it is, “Decisions are not black-or-white determinations. They are shades-of-gray judgments.” Thus, what government officials need to do is be consistent in making the best gray decisions over time.

A definition of program management that I like best is controlled agility. Agility is important because managing projects is not about staying on a project plan, it is about staying on a project path. Project plans are necessary because they define a course of action. But they don’t predict the future. The beauty of program management is it helps the project manager respond to the inevitable changes and influences that impact the business environment. The project manager is not striving to execute a perfect scenario of activities and achievement. Rather, he or she is steering a course to achieve the ultimate cost, schedule and performance targets of the project.

So we know we must make informed decisions as we steer a course. The question that begs an answer is, “How does the government decision-maker stay informed?” For major programs and projects, he or she stays informed with Independent Program Oversight.

Independent Program Oversight — The IPO
An IPO is a support function performed by highly experienced and skilled practitioners in program management who are fiercely independent of contractor biases or political influences.  The IPO’s job is to inform the government decision-maker on the true status of his or her program in two ways: its adherence to program management principles and its progress toward achieving established cost, schedule and performance objectives.

The IPO does the following:
  • Conducts multidisciplinary reviews at designated decision milestones to evaluate program and project objectives, efficiencies and effectiveness.    
  • Validates the Independent Government Cost Estimate, cost analysis methodology and research to create the estimate in relation to the cost analysis.
  • Provides independent assessment of cost and schedule compliance, earned value reports and methodologies.
  • Recommends approaches for programmatic and technical risk mitigation.
  • Provides independent due diligence on critical risk aspects of programs and projects.
  • Improves the agency’s independent program and project review processes through relationships with other agency review organizations.
  • Assesses process maturity against accepted standards of performance.
  • Is a specialist in the field of program and project management.

What’s the value?
The value of an IPO for government is in providing informed decisions. For industry, the value is in having a mediator. The IPO will:
  • Help mediate disputes between the government and the prime contractor or integrator.
  • Speed up the time-to-decision cycle that affects contractor performance.
  • Help maintain the program’s established scope, which can also affect performance.
The Gartner Group, a major research group, has found that project office oversight of external service providers will help 35 percent of IT organizations avoid major disruptions of business strategies and IT operations through 2009.

Despite all of the lessons-learned and sound management practices, programs and projects continue to falter and fail — at great costs to taxpayers. The fault lies in the management and execution of the initiatives. We don’t execute well because we don’t make informed decisions that are based on unbiased, accurate and timely information. An IPO provides the knowledge and clarity of thought to make proper judgments. Timely and accurate judgments keep programs and projects on paths that achieve cost, schedule and performance goals.

The end result is good stewardship of the government’s resources and capabilities, and results that benefit and matter to taxpayers.

Miller is a senior vice president at Robbins-Gioia, a program management consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., and a 36-year veteran of federal service. He can be reached at
emory.miller@robbinsgioia.com.

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