Strong, independent management crucial to large IT programs

Federal agencies have a long history of struggling with large information technology programs. The recent experience of the Internal Revenue Service with its Tax Systems Modernization (TSM) only underscores how important program management can be to the success of any effort.

Until recently the federal procurement system focused on the acquisition process. Now with the enactment of several new laws there is a new emphasis on performance and management. This new environment makes possible some different solutions ones that have worked well in the commercial business world - particularly the creation of a board of directors and a program management office.

A management board that has all the stakeholders at the table can oversee the program and resolve disputes. It offers a management mechanism that has all the checks and balances essential for success. The model I would propose for TSM is significantly different from the current modernization management board in place. The current board consists only of agency and departmental officials which fosters an unhealthy and costly climate in which bad news is suppressed and a single individual has the opportunity for control.A better solution would be a board composed of members who have a stake in the outcome of TSM. System users requirements developers the major contractor or contractors and resource allocators all need to have seats at the table.

Independent Board

While the government would have many seats at the table the board's chairmanship should belong to a knowledgeable and independent manager with no ties to the government or the companies performing the work.

If I were IRS commissioner I would relish a more independent qualified board as an objective balance to ensure smooth program development. Further one of the most important but rarely recognized functions of such a body would be that its oversight authority would increase the ability of the program manager simply to say "no" to actions proc-esses or procedures that often are dictated by politics or bureaucracy.

In addition to its ability to manage more independently and move the mission forward a more independent management board would add a strong measure of stability to the operation. It would reduce micromanagement foster communications with all significant parties and produce a single voice on a real-time basis. Stakeholders would become less parochial as they saw the impact their organizations' actions have on the overall program during reviews.

Ideal Mechanism

Such a board is the ideal mechanism to resolve disputes and it encourages the program manager to make good business decisions because it reduces internal political and bureaucratic pressures that often arise. The greater objectivity of an independent board also should give Congress greater comfort especially given the hundreds of millions indeed billions of dollars the government spends on major systems every year.

The board could be established by Congress or the agency with a charter similar to a company's bylaws to establish its authority and responsibilities. The bylaws must grant the board clear decision-making authority including the right to cancel the program. The charter should include a clear and pragmatic mission statement that the board may interpret to make subjective decisions. The board should be authorized for a period sufficient to complete the program or reach a specified milestone.

The program manager for TSM or any other program like it would report progress problems and suggested corrective actions to the board on a periodic basis. The board would validate the suggestions of the program manager or assign the program manager action items. It would be supported by a minimal staff to convene meetings track action items take minutes and set the format for the meetings. Staff members should be well versed in control mechanisms to assist the board in assessing the validity of the process.The infrastructure below the board level requires a professional program management office (PMO) led by a strong manager with streamlined reporting and access to the level of management that controls the required government resources. Other organizations should interface with the program office through the normal organizational process. Any more structure inhibits the program manager from executing his or her mission.

Managed Like a Small Business

The PMO should be run as an independent small business. A strong PMO would control scheduling cost and resources by tailoring processes to collect detail data and turning that data into decision factors.Automated support would collect the details within the prescribed process and manipulate it as required by the PMO professional analysts. That data would be analyzed and evaluated by experienced professionals within the PMO. Automated support need not be standard as each contractor may have his own system but the data elements sent to the PMO should be standard and the PMO should have a robust automated capability to analyze the data perform "what if" analyses and provide an executive information system (EIS) accessible to the required levels of management. In this way and only in this way will small variances be detected analyzed and acted upon before significant damage to the program baseline occurs.

In addition the PMO must have a strong and independent process in place to measure the impact of any proposed change both in technical and business terms. Any change that affects the baseline must be formally evaluated and approved even if the genesis of the change is from a higher authority.In addition the PMO must manage and control the overall program plan to include the activities and responsibilities assigned to the government. It is as important for these to be performed on time and within cost by the government as by contractors. Many programs have failed because the government deliverables including required decisions were not there.

Securing the Baseline

Finally the PMO should be the only organization that could redraw baseline program parameters and interface with the resource providers. All changes must be priced within the program envelope (cost schedule and performance) and all prices must be approved by senior management or the board of directors to allow the PMO to re-baseline. If this process is not followed the most notorious killer of programs "requirement creep " will generate program overruns. Therefore the PMO must have the inherent capability to control and manage program risk and also perform the business office role for the program.

The PMO would be the only operational office (government or contractor) that would have no parochial objectives except to produce the requirements specified by the user within the time and budget allotments. Every variance in performance cost or schedule of significant elements of the program must be known and understood by the PMO. There can be no surprises or hidden agendas in the program office.

Gioia is chief executive officer of Robbins-Gioia Inc. an Alexandria Va. company that specializes in program management.

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