What program management really means
- By Mark Rockwell
- Apr 17, 2015
If there’s a poster child for the importance of program management, it’s probably HealthCare.gov. The website’s troubled rollout in 2013 revealed serious shortcomings in the coordinated, practical oversight that a complex IT initiative requires, and the Government Accountability Office concluded in a July 2014 report that the site’s problems were due to “ineffective planning or oversight practices” during its development.
The challenges extend far beyond any one program, however. In February, federal IT acquisition was one of two additions to GAO’s list of programs at high risk of fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. The other addition was veterans’ health care, where the problems also include a substantial IT program component.
GAO’s 2014 report identifies big problems not only with HealthCare.gov but also with other massive federal IT projects. The Department of Homeland Security’s now-abandoned $1 billion Secure Border Initiative, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ failed $609 million Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise program, the Office of Personnel Management’s canceled $231 million Retirement Systems Modernization and other junked programs were all cited as evidence of shaky federal IT management.
If there’s a bright side, however, it’s that the queasiness brought on by such programs — along with the now-guaranteed GAO spotlight — are helping to spur the federal government to manage IT better. Experts in industry and government point to redoubled efforts to implement proven project management techniques and agile development practices, lure new digital thought leaders into the management ranks, and provide IT managers with more concrete models for steering large IT projects.
With such high-profile problems, program management experts say, the environment is ripe for new ways to approach an issue that has dogged the federal government for some time: how to manage big, complex IT systems that threaten to grow even larger as technology becomes more interconnected. Program management and its sister discipline, project management, involve having dedicated processes and managers who keep big, complex programs and projects on track.
The federal government has been trying to address both disciplines for some time, at least since the General Services Administration introduced its Trail Boss program in the 1980s. The effort has continued with the Obama administration’s initiatives to instill the attitudes and practices needed to effectively manage big IT projects, such as former federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s 25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management, released in 2010.
Now, it seems, there’s new urgency. “We’re at an inflection point for program and project management” to be more widely implemented in the federal government, said Craig Killough, the Project Management Institute’s vice president of organization markets.
‘Culture is the biggest issue’
The governments of other countries — including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom — have been developing their own formalized ways to incorporate requirements into IT acquisition and project evaluation for some time.
“Acquisition reform is at the forefront worldwide,” Killough said. “They’re recognizing the need to spend money more effectively and measure how they’re doing it.”
“At the end of this administration and moving into the next, we should see improvement across the board,” former Department of Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires said, with GAO’s high-risk list providing the impetus that agencies sometimes need to start the long and arduous process of addressing the problems.
Spires, who served as CIO at the Internal Revenue Service before moving to DHS and is now CEO of Resilient Network Systems, said the IRS spent more than a decade maturing its acquisition and program management and its ability to deliver successful programs. Those efforts finally got the agency off GAO’s high-risk list in 2014.
“This is not really a technology problem as much as a skill and cultural one,” he said. “Culture is the biggest issue.”
Even with the recent passage of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, which gives federal CIOs more authority and oversight of projects in their agencies, “it’s hard to put these practices into place,” Spires said.
FITARA should hold CIOs more accountable for large IT projects, but the legislation’s effects will take some time and could possibly extend into the next presidential administration.
Rick Holgate, CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said efforts to quantify program management are bearing fruit, under initiatives such as the Office of Management and Budget’s TechStat. Those evidence-based accountability reviews of IT investments allow the government to terminate failing IT projects. Holgate, who is also president of the American Council for Technology, said the program has become more efficient at providing measurable performance data on projects’ tangible objectives.
However, more needs to be done. Softer, less measurable skills — intangibles such as knowing when a group or vendor involved in a big project is not completely committed to it or being able to deftly manage large groups of people and organizations — aren’t as far along as more measurable parameters and practices, Holgate said.
Toward that end, last May ACT-IAC issued its “7-S for Success” Framework, which seeks to promote key success factors for major IT programs through a comprehensive management approach that addresses major sticking points in federal IT acquisition.
Even though the program is a year old, it has gotten traction, according to Holgate and Industry Advisory Council Executive Chairman Dan Chenok, who also directs the IBM Center for the Business of Government.
Some of the concepts, for example, have been incorporated into the Digital Services Playbook issued by OMB’s new U.S. Digital Service. USDS is led by Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer who served on the team that repaired HealthCare.gov after its 2013 launch.
Legislating better management
On Capitol Hill, Killough said, PMI is backing legislation by the three-year-old Government Efficiency Caucus. Led by Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.), the group wants to establish formal job series and pathways for career program managers in the federal government. The legislation, which is being drafted by Young and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), has not yet been introduced, but it aims to attract talented management professionals from industry with experience in handling large projects.
“The federal government must dramatically enhance its ability to conduct effective program and project management,” said Connolly, who is the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Government Operations Subcommittee and co-author of FITARA. “Conducting oversight of major federal IT failures, I have repeatedly found that when one begins peeling the onion back, the common underlying weakness running through a wide and diverse range of struggling programs is a serious deficiency in program and project management competencies.”
Because of those repeated management gaps, Connolly said, legislators “were careful to explicitly require that program and project managers are key components of FITARA’s specialized IT acquisition cadres.” And those gaps also prompted him and Young to draft legislation that seeks to “institutionalize and strengthen program and project management improvement initiatives.”
Industry’s increasingly agile management and development techniques are adding pressure to inject more such programmatic approaches at federal agencies. The government has implemented its own nascent progressive development methods that Spires, Holgate, Chenok and Killough agreed will further spur agencies to adapt.
GSA’s 18F digital incubator, the Digital Services Playbook and USDS — along with increased budget authority for CIOs under FITARA — will give CIOs more accountability and a cohesive overview of how their agencies’ IT operations fit together.
Those operations, however, are not getting any less complex or easier to manage, which means there probably is no end to efforts to get a handle on them.
“Technology evolves rapidly,” Killough said. “Keeping an emphasis on the outcome is difficult.” And even with the adoption of more programmatic management techniques, wrangling big IT projects “won’t become easier. [But] it will become more effective.”
How the U.K. is managing major projects
In 2011, the United Kingdom launched its Major Projects Authority, a partnership between the government’s Cabinet Office and the Treasury. Under the authority of the country’s prime minister, MPA oversees and directs management of all large-scale projects that are funded and delivered by the central government. MPA scrutinizes projects, ensures accountability and contributes to Treasury’s decisions about which projects to approve.
When MPA launched, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said the authority would facilitate cross-government communications to establish budgets, business cases and delivery timetables for big projects across government.
“The MPA will work in collaboration with central government departments to help us get firmer control of our major projects both at an individual and portfolio level,” he said.
Four years later, the British press has accused MPA of losing its momentum and its guiding light. The Independent newspaper noted on March 4 that MPA’s first director, Australian developer David Pitchford, had departed for his homeland and that MPA has not had a full-time leader since October 2014.
The report quotes government officials who consider MPA an ineffective “tick-box auditor” that adds a level of unneeded bureaucracy to large projects.
Program management officials in the U.S. say that adding a high-level oversight operation like MPA wouldn’t work here, not least because of the government’s scope. A nimbler approach, built on agency-based communities of interests, is a better model, said Richard Spires, former CIO at the Department of Homeland Security and now CEO of Resilient Network Systems.
“A centralized program management office in the U.S. government wouldn’t work well,” he said. “It would blunt collaboration.”
He added that the ability to solicit input from industry is vital, but agencies must build local centers of excellence that could tap expertise across government for all agencies to use.