OPM draft to elevate project managers' role

The Office of Personnel Management last month issued draft guidelines to help agencies shape the increasingly important role project managers play in government information technology programs.

Officials maintain that trained and skilled project managers are essential to the success of e-government and other cross-agency programs. But to date, there hasn't been a structured, clear process to ensure that such workers are recruited, trained and hired.

Among the guidance's objectives are helping agencies identify project manager positions, clarifying project manager duties, recruiting and developing project managers, and implementing training programs.

The draft guidance also addresses IT projects specifically. Later, OPM officials plan to address the project manager position in other lines of work, such as financial management and acquisition.

Officials have been clamoring for such guidance, said Fred Thompson, assistant director for consulting and marketing at the Treasury Department and a member of the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee. "It's more than just training that makes these people. It's skill sets and communication," he said last month at a conference.

New program managers should have broad experience in technology and be familiar with the program's mission — a skill set that has not been sought before, Thompson said. "This is really quite a challenge, and it's a new role."

Good project managers are often promoted into management, but the better path for the individual and the agency would be to move them to more high-impact projects. "Project management has not really been identified as a discipline," he said.

OPM distinguishes between a project, which has a beginning and end date, and a program, which is an ongoing operation that encompasses missions, functions, projects, laws and other broader issues.

The guidance also differentiates between general project management skills and IT project management skills. Most project managers, for instance, must understand budgeting and contracting, but IT project managers must also understand IT metrics, methods and concepts.

Project management skills are in high demand, said Rich D'Adamo, president of Workforce Solutions LLC. "With the continuing reduction in the size of the federal workforce, more...organizations are adopting the project management model and not just in the IT arena."

This project management model "breaks work down into manageable units and allows organizations to focus more clearly on the delivery of a discrete product or service," D'Adamo said. And it allows agencies to use outside resources such as contractors to accomplish project objectives.

Project managers "will be crucial to the success of e-government as well as many other IT and non-IT initiatives," D'Adamo said. "I think we can also expect this model to be adopted to a significant extent within the Department of Homeland Security because it will allow the department's expansive mission to be broken down into manageable units and facilitate the infusion of external resources that will permit a quick ramp-up of capabilities."

The guidance is "interpretative" because it does not provide any tools that agencies don't already have at their disposal, said Doris Hausser, assistant director for Performance and Compensation Systems Design at OPM. "We're stepping back and saying, 'Here's how to use the tools you've already got.'"

During the past three months, the CIO Council and OPM have been running focus groups to identify and talk to the top project managers in government, according to Thompson. One thing they hope to learn is how to build a support structure in government to best use the project managers they can find and how to create more. They started out with three or four people and by the end of September, so many people were interested that they had to turn people away, Thompson said.

A final guidance document won't be out before the middle of this month, Hausser said. OPM accepted agency comments on the draft until Nov. 1.

***

The Office of Personnel Management draft guidance details the knowledge and skills typically required by information technology project managers. These include:

* Federal government and agency enterprise IT goals and objectives.

* IT metrics, methods and concepts.

* Data records and information management principles and methods.

* System and process design concepts and methods.

* IT system security principles, concepts and methods.

* Enterprise architecture.

* Emerging and developing technology.

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