Managing the contractors

Government information technology implementations are growing increasingly complex — and at the same time, so is their management. When agencies team up with systems integrators to get this work done, they must follow a carefully choreographed routine of project and program management that can keep projects on time and on budget, without the messiness of turf battles.

In general, experts say, the key to success is for agencies to make their requirements clear and check the integrator's progress along the way, while putting the integrator in charge of the day-to-day heavy lifting and managing. The biggest mistake an agency can make is to think that program management is as simple as writing a check and then standing back.

"Where I come from, program management is a career field," said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. "It takes 12 years to be fully qualified and able to handle a major acquisition. Strong program management is essential to a successful acquisition."

Integrators know how to install systems and make all the components work right, he said.

"That's what their business is. What generally happens is the government just can't stop [itself] and gets involved in the day-to-day direction," he said. "Then when the project's a failure, they point fingers at each other and say, 'You didn't let me do what I needed to do.'"

That's not to say that agencies should take a hands-off approach, said Gene Bounds, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Robbins-Gioia LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in program management. The agency's chief responsibility is to develop a clearly constructed set of requirements, he said.

His firm offers training and aid in that task. "Rarely does the government have the in-depth skills in each of [the disciplines involved in a project], so what we do is to shore them up," he said. "How many times does an agency get to go through a large modernization program? Once a decade. They are smart people, but it's like if you take an auto mechanic from 10 years ago, the technologies have changed."

Robbins-Gioia starts with a baseline assessment of the agency. "We help them understand the gestalt of what has to change, in terms of IT, in terms of people skills," Bounds said.

Agencies also have to play an active role in developing a budget and ensuring that the project doesn't cost more than it should, he said. "The government has a tendency to accept whatever the integrator says. That's often off by an [order of] magnitude or two because there hasn't been a diligent assessment of what needs to change."

The agency should also monitor the project day to day, he said, rather than periodic check-ins that are months apart. "Programs slip one day at a time. They don't slip because you get 12 months down the road and find out they're behind by 10 months," Bounds said.

Two-way communication

When the relationship between agency and integrator is strong, the interaction flows smoothly, said Thomas Conaway, managing partner for homeland security at Unisys Corp. He managed the Information Technology Managed Services contract at the Transportation Security Administration until August, serving as Unisys' team leader.

"Those relationships are pretty straightforward," he said. "We need to have a one-to-one relationship between a project manager and government. When we document requirements, somebody has to validate that our requirements are correct. Someone has to make sure that our performance levels are meeting government expectations. Having a government person that owns it from their perspective is a hand-in-glove fit for us. We can't work in a vacuum."

Good program management changes with the circumstances, he said. Initially at TSA, the emphasis was on individual projects, with one Unisys employee and one government worker leading each one. Over time, as the IT infrastructure matured, the focus shifted to the interactions between the individual components and how they related to the larger framework.

The single project focus "worked well for the initial stages of the contract, because everyone was so focused on standing up the initial IT infrastructure for the organization," he said. "After we got through the initial surge, TSA determined that they could modify their organizational structure a little bit to better serve their customers."

Integrators usually have management methodologies that they have developed internally and that agencies can tailor to fit specific situations, he said.

With increasing pressure on agencies to lower costs and improve efficiencies, smart management is becoming increasingly important, Bounds said.

"Ten years ago it was evident that [the Defense Department] understood this. Over the past seven years, we've seen civilian agencies adopt it," he said. "But it's not until this last year that we've seen [the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management] put a stake in the ground."

Agencies and integrators have to recognize that although project management is an established discipline, program management is an emerging concept, he said. As implementations become more complex and long term, business partners stay on-site and in charge of daily management for longer periods and for larger organizations.

Program managers have to be good at managing teams of people, instead of only the technology of a specific project. That is what integrators increasingly will have to offer to agencies.

"What we have is just the start," Bounds said. "We still haven't approached the real problem. We've started by looking at what has to happen today. We're teaching from old textbooks, old ideas. We have to see program management migrate to the enterprise. They're not just individual programs anymore."

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