CIO Perspective

Program management: Governance matters

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In this series of columns, I am presenting the five key elements to help ensure the success of major IT programs. A key element includes putting a program governance model in place that recognizes the proper roles and authorities of the important stakeholders.

Too often, I have reviewed programs in which the program manager is attempting to address executives' differing -- and, in some cases, opposite -- views of what constitute the program's priorities. In such cases, even the best manager fails if the program governance model does not work.

Governance drives alignment among key decision-makers in an organization. We have heard for decades that IT programs fail because of ill-defined requirements or poorly managed requirements scope throughout the life cycle of a program. Although true, that failure is a symptom of a more fundamental underlying cause: the inability for all key stakeholders in a program to agree on desired outcomes and the approaches to meet those outcomes.

Change is inevitable in all IT programs, so achieving such alignment is not a one-time exercise at the start of a program. Alignment is an ongoing process that is critical throughout an investment's strategic planning, design, development and implementation. Therefore, governance must be viewed as a full life-cycle process. And for complex IT systems, there are at least a half-dozen stakeholder organizations that must be aligned, including the strategy organization, the business or mission owner of the system, IT, finance, procurement, legal, security and privacy. Ensuring that all key stakeholders are involved in important decisions is an essential element to achieving genuine alignment.

Program governance works best when there is a single, transparent reporting relationship for a program manager to an oversight (program-level) governance board. The board of executives from key stakeholder organizations must be empowered to make decisions that are binding for their organizations and create a partnership among all the stakeholders. The function of the governance board is not to usurp the authorities of the program manager. Rather, it is to provide a forum by which the program manager can bring key issues and trade-off decisions to an informed, empowered body that has a vested interest in that program's success and views the program manager as a trusted adviser and subject-matter specialist.

In today's environment of more incremental and even agile development, a program in design or development should have a governance board that meets no less than monthly and in some cases biweekly, depending on the type of program and the life-cycle stage of the investment. Not only does an active program governance board support accountability, it also fosters transparency.

Creating a culture of partnership and trust is vital to the true alignment needed to support IT programs. Hence, the governance framework must foster that trusting and collaborative decision-making environment. I recommend that program governance boards be co-led by the business owner and IT executive for an IT program to promote a partnership model and ensure that no one organization dominates. Collaboration in IT program governance brings forth the best ideas, melds varied interests and unifies efforts.

Further, decisions made by a governance board should be consensus driven, not reduced to a vote-counting exercise. If a program governance board cannot reach a key decision through consensus, the decision should be escalated to the board at the next highest level (typically an investment review board) or, if need be, to the head of the agency.

By doing that, however, the board is abdicating its decision-making authority. In an organization with mature governance, boards will force themselves to make the tough decisions -- which is just what an agency's leaders should expect.

About the Author

Richard A. Spires has been in the IT field for more than 30 years, with eight years in federal government service. He served as the lead for the Business Systems Modernization program at the IRS, then served as CIO and deputy commissioner for operations support, before moving to the Department of Homeland Security to serve as CIO of that agency. He is now CEO of Resilient Network Systems.

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