Government's new IT career path is critical, sources say

OPM chooses agencies for first tests of the program

The White House’s IT management reform effort is all about execution, according to the White House officials who announced it earlier this month. To ensure the plan results in action and not just another pile of analysis and guidance documents, the Obama administration is proposing the creation of a specialized career path for IT program managers who will lead projects from start to finish.

Sources familiar with the reform plan said hiring qualified program managers to oversee large-scale IT projects is the most important investment the government can make.

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The administration’s reform plan provides an overview of the duties that would fall within a program manager’s purview. “Strong program management professionals are essential to effectively steward IT programs from beginning to end, align disparate stakeholders, manage the tension between on-time delivery and additional functionality, and escalate issues for rapid resolution before they become roadblocks,” the report reads.

Within the next six months, the Office of Personnel Management will work with agencies and the Office of Management and Budget to develop the IT program management career path. OPM intends to pilot the IT career track at the Treasury and Agriculture departments.

The plan also calls for the establishment of integrated, multidisciplinary program teams before the beginning of major IT projects and requires programs managers to share best practices at the close of each project. And, over the next 18 months, the Federal CIO Council, along with OMB and OPM, will work on developing a process to encourage program-manager mobility across the government.

Moreover, the Federal CIO Council will create a technology fellows program that will allow the federal government to partner directly with universities and well-recognized technology programs to enhance recruitment.

Each of these steps is assigned to different “owners,” including federal agencies and the Federal CIO Council, with varying timeframes for completion.

Trey Hodgkins, vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said he thinks the ultimate outcome of the IT program manager career path will be the ability to identify project problems earlier on and better management of taxpayers’ dollars. 

Hodgkins said there is no formal training process for program managers in the federal government and often IT managers have to split their time among several different projects. A program manager might be overseeing a multibillion dollar program while also managing seven other programs, he explained.

Ideally, there will be enough trained federal program managers so that each major IT project has a dedicated leader, he added.

Former Republican Congressman Tom Davis agreed that creating a career path for program managers is critical in the federal sector and makes sense from a financial point-of-view. Davis, who used to chair the House Government Reform Committee and now serves as the director of federal government affairs for Deloitte, added that the career path and an appropriate salary are needed to attract skilled managers.

“You’ve got to give people a reason to work for government,” Davis said.

Hodgkins also highlighted the integrated program teams as an important part of the reform plan. “Right now, the way the process works, it is purely coincidental if all the elements in the process are actually talking to each other,” he said. “It makes no sense from our perspective to have a program spend millions and billions of dollars and then, after the fact, have auditors come in.”

The reform plan acknowledges the “siloed nature of government stakeholder communities” and points to the private-sector practice of bringing together small multidisciplinary integrated program teams as a solution.

To implement this practice in the government, OMB will issue guidance within the next six months requiring integrated program teams, led by a full-time program manager and supported by an IT acquisition specialist, be in place for all major IT programs before OMB will approve program budgets.

Observers said they see few obstacles – besides possible cultural impediments within agencies – to implementing the IT program management reforms.

Hodgkins said he is optimistic about the success of the career management path and the plan overall, as it is a focus of the Obama administration and has garnered support from Congress and industry.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.


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