VA aces business case exam

Veterans Affairs

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs are breathing more easily these days, after the Office of Management and Budget accepted all 59 of their information technology business cases for fiscal 2005 on the first go-around.

Last year, in contrast, OMB officials returned more than 700 business cases from agencies governmentwide, saying the projects were at risk of not receiving funding if the agencies did not provide better management plans. The office accepted many of those cases after revision, although not all.

OMB requires business cases, known as Exhibit 300s, for all major IT acquisitions. Their purpose is to identify risks associated with each purchase and determine the degree to which agencies' IT plans comply with the President's Management Agenda.

Ed Meagher, the VA's acting chief information officer, attributed the department's success with the business cases to an increased focus on management issues, including project management training and certification.

"A year ago, we made this a goal and decided that the only acceptable thing was 100 percent passing on the first go," Meagher said. "As far as we know, this is the first time that's ever happened."

OMB officials, who are in the midst of reviewing other agencies' fiscal 2005 business cases, would not confirm if the VA's accomplishment is unique.

The department's perfect performance is the result of a disciplined process that started well before OMB's deadline, Meagher said. The VA's strategy included internal scoring with higher standards than OMB's criteria.

"We evaluated ourselves more stringently than OMB [officials] said they were going to, so we knew internally that each one of our cases was going to pass before we ever submitted them," he said.

The VA faced a daunting task of preparing program managers to reach appropriate certification levels. Of the 59 Exhibit 300 cases proposed by the agency, 56 required project managers to reach Level 3 certification, the VA's highest certification level.

To accomplish this, the department provided seven weeks of training through ESI International Inc. in partnership with George Washington University, said Craig Luigart, the VA's acting associate deputy assistant secretary for policies, plans and programs.

Susan Barron, ESI strategic account manager, explained that the curriculum was customized for the VA, with agency-specific references and templates.

"The VA is very sophisticated in what they've done, and they've taken a really strong approach to it," Barron said. Passing 59 out of 59 "is a big coup in this day and age."

Jennifer Stanford, director of professional development at Robbins-Gioia LLC, stressed the importance of project manager certification throughout the federal government.

"The VA is so successful because they have coupled the education and certification with program management practices and standards that the entire organization follows," Stanford said.

Luigart also said that project managers could meet requirements by holding professional certification from the Project Management Institute or various Defense Department master's degree programs with project management concentrations.

The VA has provided training for nearly 500 project managers, he said.

Meagher commended his employees for making the effort to reach Level 3 standards, noting that class attendance and work completion were added to students' everyday duties.

"It was one of the hardest things to do because of what it involved," he said.

Despite all the work involved, Meagher feels the Exhibit 300 program is a worthy approach to monitoring IT investments.

"It's a very, very worthwhile discipline," he said. "It makes you spend a year thinking about your projects. Do they integrate? Do they return value for the investment? The Exhibit 300 process requires you to do that earned value analysis so that you know."

***

Certifying the program managers

The Department of Veterans Affairs offers master's certificates in project management awarded by ESI International Inc. and George Washington University.

The training consists of the following seven courses:

* Managing projects.

* Project leadership, management and communications.

* Scheduling and cost control.

* Risk management.

* Quality for project managers.

* Contracting for project managers.

* Project management applications.

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