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Making Government’s Massive Programs Work: Now It’s the Law

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Flickr user Tony Brooks

Over the past few decades, private companies have recognized program management as a key factor in enhancing organizational performance with respect to complex and challenging change initiatives. In addition to managing ongoing programs, the federal government increasingly is called upon to undertake large, complex initiatives and to adapt and improve existing programs in a rapidly changing environment.

Last year, Congress enacted the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act, recognizing that these capabilities are as important for the public sector as they are for the private sector. The new law provides federal agencies with an unprecedented opportunity to build a framework that enhances program management, yielding greater value for the American public.

The National Academy of Public Administration recently released a report by an independent panel that offers advice for the government on effective practices in implementing PMIAA. The report, which the Project Management Institute requested, contains recommendations for how the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and federal agencies can best meet the law’s requirements; it builds on a 2015 academy white paper issued prior to the law’s enactment.

PMIAA’s goal is to ensure that federal agencies incorporate essential principles critical to successful project and program management, with particular focus on the program management area. Program management has not received significant attention as an important skill set and career path in the federal government. Because many agencies have advanced in the project management area, and several agencies have embraced promoting program management, the statute also serves to supplement and enhance existing levels of expertise in the federal sector.

In implementing the statute, OMB and OPM have several critical responsibilities. OMB, for example, must establish a Program Management Policy Council to serve as an interagency forum for strengthening program and project management across the federal government. And OPM must devise a new job series, define key skills and competencies, and prepare a new career path guide for program and project managers.

PMIAA provides the federal government with an ideal building block from which program and project management can be enhanced as a discipline. The new law’s human resources-related requirements, in particular, can serve as a key enabler for federal agencies to achieve their missions.

Program and project management are not synonymous. They are related but distinct, each requiring unique skills and competencies. Effective program management depends on the effective management of individual projects conducted by a cadre of professionals with a wide range of expertise, such as skills in stakeholder and change management, public engagement and communications, and working with congressional and other overseers.

Federal departments and agencies have widely differing skill sets and experience in those areas and must implement the new law within the larger context of existing agency statutes and policies. In the process, program management cannot become just another silo. Program managers must be integrators who bring together many streams to enable success.

OMB and OPM can take a consultative approach when devising overarching policies to guide agency implementation. This means tapping into existing pockets of expertise that some agencies already have garnered through successful experiences. The new PMPC will have a great opportunity to maximize the law’s impact by establishing a strategic vision, serving as leading driver for implementation, and offering a resource for ongoing work as program management capabilities mature throughout the federal government.

By applying program and project management throughout their operations, federal agencies can achieve more results for taxpayer dollars and deliver more effective service to the public.

Dan Chenok is the panel chair for the National Academy of Public Administration’s white paper and executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Roger Kodat is a project director for NAPA.

Photo: Flickr user Tony Brooks

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