Panel: Meld program management, acquisition for success

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"Rescue heroes"

Program management should be part of the acquisition process from the beginning of major information technology projects to give them the best shot of succeeding, a panel of federal officials agreed today.

Speaking at the Program Management Summit, a conference sponsored by FCW Media Group's FCW Events, the panelists said collaboration between the two disciplines is critical.

David Drabkin, deputy chief acquisition officer at the General Services Administration, drew a distinction between acquisition and contracting. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, he noted that acquisition refers to the entire life cycle of a project, from the initial drafting of requirements all the way to the final disposal of assets when they are due for replacement or termination. Contracting is a subset of acquisition and refers to individual contracts, he said.

Acquisition ideally takes place against the backdrop of an enterprise architecture, an overarching strategy, he said. "It's the absence of settled enterprise architecture throughout the government that can, in part, account for failed contracts and failed acquisitions," he said.

Charles Havekost, chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, also emphasized the importance of collaboration. "This theme of communication is one we all have to be aware of," he said.

A project needs a program manager with a stake in the outcome, he said. The manager needs a passion for the project and the ability to inspire a similar fervor in the project team.

"You can't build fire in a group if you're talking about something that's complex," Havekost said. "Complexity takes nuance to describe. You have to distill down this complex project that you're doing."

Agency leaders should stick with their strengths, said Susan Gerbing, program manager of the Health IT Program Management Office in the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Information.

"It doesn't hurt to get outside consultants," she said. "At VA, we deliver patient care. We are not IT experts."

Drabkin said failed IT projects can be costly to recover from, expenses that could be avoided with good program management.

"We're willing to spend lots of money shooting the wounded, but not on making sure we have enough people in the program office to do it right in the first place," he said.

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