Get with the program

When Bush administration officials released the proposed fiscal 2004 budget last month, they put many agencies on notice: Improve your management of information technology projects or risk losing project funding. Now many agencies are scrambling to find a solution.

More than 700 projects — nearly one-third of the IT budget request — were deemed "at risk" by Office of Management and Budget officials primarily because they lack appropriate business plans or fall short of their goals. The root problem, they said, appears to be a shortage of skilled workers to support the volume of federal IT projects.

Now, eager to get their projects off OMB's high-risk list, many agencies face the daunting task of finding and training qualified program and project managers.

In general, program managers handle large programs consisting of multiple projects, while project managers oversee a specific project.

A few agencies have had programs in place for many years, while others are just getting started. Either way, agency officials recognize the need to plan ahead, and hope their projects don't get cut at the beginning of a new fiscal year.

"We clearly understand projects don't get done through the technical components. They get done through people," said Ira Hobbs, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee. "If you don't have the right people, the best-laid projects will fail."

The primary role of the program manager has shifted as agencies hire contractors to perform more work in the federal government, according to Rich D'Adamo, president of Workforce Solutions LLC. "As a result, program managers need to know less about planning, budgeting and other traditional management functions and more about building successful relationships and increasing customer satisfaction," he said.

Career paths for program managers have never been mapped well, D'Adamo said, so employees are often put in management positions without basic competencies. Also, those employees need to constantly update their skills to fit new initiatives.

The Office of Personnel Management and the CIO Council have worked since last fall to develop project management program guidelines, outlining core competencies and clearly defining the roles of the managers. The guidelines will "institutionalize and create systemic changes," said Laura Callahan, deputy chief information officer at the Labor Department and co-chairwoman of the CIO Council's IT workforce committee. From there, agencies can tailor the plan to meet their needs.

"Each agency is looking from different vantage points. Each agency will come up with a strategy to develop sound program management practices," she said. "We can identify the challenge and give them guidelines. From there, each agency should have the flexibility to implement it."

William Leidinger, assistant secretary for management at the Education Department, said there are two solutions: develop an in-house training program, which his agency has done, or make sure that managers are included in the plans for larger projects involving contractors.

The Agriculture Department began tackling the problem a year ago. In fiscal 2002, the department held four six-week training sessions, carried out during several months. Each session trained about 15 managers with an intensive focus on making them eligible to take a certification exam. So far, 62 managers have completed the training and another 15 are in the process. The in-house training is relevant to the USDA's specific programs and tailored to its capital-planning initiatives.

"The idea is to increase the expertise of the staff who are managing the projects on a day-to-day basis," USDA Associate CIO Gregory Parham said. "We do believe it's an investment in our own workforce."

He said the USDA has several "at-risk" projects, and could reduce them by building an adequate training program.

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