Lessons from the field

During the past several months, officials at the Office of Management and Budget have made a case for improving project management across the federal government.

Faced with the mounting costs of homeland security and operations in Iraq, Bush administration officials have told federal agencies they need to improve their ability to deliver projects on time and on budget if projects are to go forward at all. As evidence, they cite the 700-plus systems from the proposed fiscal 2004 budget now on OMB’s at-risk list.

But some people contend that the feds are late to the game.

Similar scenarios have been playing out around the country — in state and local governments — for the past several years. The scale is usually different with most large projects worth tens, not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Yet the problems are strikingly similar, and federal agencies could learn from the work state and local agencies have already done.

As in the federal government, state and local chief information officers typically are not dealing with consistent failures but with inconsistent success.

That's what Virginia officials realized two years ago after reviewing the performance of projects across their agencies. "Some projects were coming in okay, but others weren't," said Michael Sandridge, technology management specialist in the state's Department of Technology Planning.

Massachusetts officials became concerned about the problem nearly three years ago when state officials began undertaking enterprise technology projects to develop systems that cut across agency boundaries. The conclusion they reached then has been echoed in recent statements by OMB officials.

The problem was not with the technology itself, said Val Asbedian, former director of the Strategic Planning Group within Massachusetts' Information Technology Division and now CIO of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. "Our failures have always been at the management level."

The federal government, wrestling with these same problems, has an opportunity to learn from its state and local counterparts. Each state, county or city has a different take on the problem, often colored by local politics. Yet certain underlying principles or lessons learned tend to emerge.

Classroom Training and Its Limits

For most organizations, the first step toward better project management is usually classroom training, whether it's a homegrown course offered by the human resources department or a certification program from the Project Management Institute (PMI) or similar organizations.

Project management classes, at the least, provide a straightforward way to give would-be managers some rudimentary management skills, such as developing and tracking milestones and managing budgets. In most places, anyone managing a project of a certain size — usually $500,000 or $1 million — must attend the class.

Massachusetts has a similar requirement. The IT department has three project managers who can serve as consultants for other agencies. But if another agency wants someone in-house to serve as a project manager, they must send that person to a five-day class run by the human resources division.

As a rule, agencies pay for such training. However, if the IT department believes a project is complex or large enough, it is willing to foot the bill, Asbedian said.

The class focuses primarily on project planning, teaching agency employees about the upfront work needed to get a project under way.

"Our class is an introduction to project management," said Maria Torres, instructional designer in the Human Resources Division, who works with a certified project manager to teach the class. "It gives them the tools, but it is not enough to certify them or make them professional project managers," she said.

The course, in which students work on project scenarios throughout the five days, includes an exercise in risk management to teach them to identify and plan for problems that could cause a project to go off track.

In a similar vein, training offered by the Governor's Office for Technology (GOT) in Kentucky focuses primarily on project initiation, when the business case is made, the budget and timeline developed and the go/no go decision is made.

The department offers training once a quarter, with about 15 to 20 people attending each class. "That works for now, because there is not a whole lot of money today for a lot of IT projects," said Robin Morley, executive director of GOT's Office of Consulting and Project Management.

But classroom training has its limits, experts have found.

Wayne Cree, CIO of Jefferson County, Ala., at one point several years ago sent many members of his staff to a five-day class offered locally by a Birmingham organization.

The class, which covered the entire management process, from creation to post-implementation reviews, had good instructors and good materials. But as is the case with any conference or class, he said, "what you walk away with is maybe 20 percent of the knowledge that you have in front of you."

Another problem was the generic nature of the material, he said. Although it sounded good in a classroom, "they couldn't apply it to what they were doing." People began to slip into old habits after three or four months, Cree said.

The Power of Process

Kentucky officials had that problem in mind when developing their course. Morley's office began with basic material that PMI developed, but "we gave it Kentucky flavor," reflecting the particulars of Kentucky's management environment, she said.

PMI, for example, defines nine project management knowledge areas, each focused on processes carried out during different stages of a project's life cycle. Kentucky views projects in five major stages, with a sequence of processes identified for each.

Gene Bounds, executive vice president of operations at Robbins-Gioia LLC, said Kentucky took the right approach.

Headquartered in Alexandria, Va., the firm provides project management services and tools to the public and private sectors. Before they start training, organizations must define the basic processes or methodologies they expect their managers to follow, Bounds said.

The processes should define a basic approach to initiating, rolling out and supporting projects. An agency might begin with PMI processes or the Capability Maturity Model created by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. But whatever they choose, they must ensure it aligns with how they actually do their work.

"You want them to be 'mappable' to an organization's life cycle," Bounds said.

Jefferson County is now taking that approach. After classroom training did not pan out, Cree established a project management office, which is responsible for developing project management guidelines and methodologies for his staff to follow.

The project management office, for example, has defined basic rules for processing service requests and for handling requests for project changes, two common situations that have been handled in an ad hoc fashion for many years.

"What Wayne is having to do is reinvent how we do business with our customer," said Bill Cook, who heads the office.

And to ensure that those rules stick, Cree is modifying his staff's job descriptions to incorporate management disciplines.

Only when an organization has those processes in place should training begin, Bounds said.

The Business of Project Management

But management processes, focused on keeping project teams on track, foster a limited view of what constitutes a successful project, some experts say.

Phillip Windley, former CIO of Utah and now an IT consultant, is a proponent of "product management," a concept he borrowed from the private sector.

The project manager is worried about the mechanics of a project — how it will be developed, how long it will take and how much it will cost. The product manager, on the other hand, is concerned about its purpose — whom the project will serve and how it will meet their needs.

"They are an advocate for the customer," Windley said.

The product manager in most cases should not be a "techie," but someone from the business side of an agency.

Before leaving the CIO office in December 2002, Windley launched a product management council to oversee the development of the state's e-government projects.

The council has made it a point to involve the state's "business people" in e-government projects, said Dave Fletcher, Utah's deputy CIO for e-government and deputy director of the Department of Administrative Services.

"Generally, what has happened in the past with government is they will take an IT person and put them over an IT project and the communication with the business people does not always happen," he said.

Kentucky CIO Aldona Valicenti has tackled some of the same problems by requiring any project worth more than $1 million to have a formal steering committee. The committee — which reviews the scope, deliverables, timelines and aspects of proposed projects — includes high-level officials from the agencies involved.

Kentucky also has created a capital planning advisory board that draws from all three branches of government. In reviewing spending requests, the board pushes agencies to make sound business cases for their projects, she said.

Virginia is taking a similar approach as part of a reorganization of the technology department. In addition to creating a project management office, officials are establishing an IT investment board that will be responsible for reviewing major projects, said Judy Marchand, manager of technology management in the Department of Technology Planning.

OMB officials could appreciate why Virginia took this particular approach.

"The recent fiscal crisis brought into focus a need to get a handle on how we are spending dollars in the commonwealth and how we can most effectively invest those dollars," Marchand said.

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