Chasing Efficiency

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Properly trained project managers may be the key to smarter spending and more effective programs. 

By Charles S. Clark

C

urbing government waste and duplication likely requires training more specialists in program management. 

Federal agencies are behind private industry in training program managers to reduce costs in today’s climate of doing more with less, according to a recent survey by the nonprofit Project Management Institute.

Government organizations risk $148 million for every $1 billion they spend, due to poor program management, according to Pulse of the Profession, a survey of 800 project managers, 154 of them in government. Fifty-two percent of government respondents acknowledged that they frequently focus on their specific office’s performance objectives as opposed to the strategic goals of the organization or agency, compared with only 43 percent of private sector respondents. Only 11 percent of government organizations have a senior-level program management role (compared with 22 percent elsewhere), and only 37 percent of government respondents have a formal process for developing program management competency, 17 percent lower than industry.

The survey also found a 10-point decline during the past five years in the number of government programs that met their original goals. “One challenge in government is simply identifying the program manager leading the spending of billions of dollars every year,” institute president Mark Langley said at a Capitol Hill event hosted by the House Government Efficiency Caucus. 

Citing models in the European Union and elsewhere, Langley said other governments now see a “competitive advantage” to cultivating program management to protect taxpayer dollars. He called for changes in the federal job classification system, noting that private sector organizations are three times more likely than federal agencies to create career paths and processes to help cultivate the leadership, technical and business skills good program managers need.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and longtime critic of federal bloat, told the audience that specialized program managers could “squeeze out” a lot of the duplication and waste that Congress and the Obama administration have been unable to confront. “There’s not a business on Earth that would carry $700 billion in accounts receivable, or uncollected collectible debt,” Light said, adding that “we’re a little timid about it because it involves student loans, veterans’ housing and small businesses, plus $350 billion in delinquent taxes, including $300,000 from White House staff.”

Light’s plan to trim the federal budget of $1 trillion would involve resurrecting the Resolution Trust Corporation, the late 1980s temporary agency set up to sell off failed financial institutions following the savings and loan crisis. “Give it a five-year life and authorize it to collect and liquidate,” he said, noting that current efforts to reduce duplicative programs “are difficult because the congressional chairmen and subcommittee chairmen all have a piece of the pie, and each agency is charging overhead.”

Light advocated reforming a civil service that he said is “slow on hiring, negligent on training, and permissive on promotions,” though, he noted, such a move would “cause a bloodbath” because employee unions would complain about political favoritism. Under the current system, “managers are encouraged to do nothing about poor performers,” he said. Light advised the House caucus to get together with senators who care about curbing duplication, mentioning Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., John Cornyn, R-Texas, Mark Warner, D-Va., and Tom Carper, D-Del. 

Still, the news isn’t all bad. Richard Garrison, vice chancellor of the Veterans Affairs Department’s Acquisition Academy, pointed to VA managers who receive training and coaching and can earn certification “based on objectively defined outcomes.” For many of the department’s doctors and nurses, managing commodities and services or a new building “is not what they do,” he said.

Three years ago, VA’s information technology programs were wasting millions, and 33 out of 45 were behind schedule by a year or more. Once program managers began diagnosing the problems and overcoming resistance from supervisors, Garrison said, VA was able to get 82 percent of its IT programs back on schedule. Since IT represents about a tenth of VA’s $9 billion in annual acquisitions, he added, there is room for these successes to be duplicated elsewhere.

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