Program Managers Too Scarce in the Federal Government, Survey Concludes

The private sector does a better job with training and career development, nonprofit finds.

The key to curbing government waste and duplication lies in training more specialists in program management, analysts said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill panel hosted by the House Government Efficiency Caucus.

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

Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., a former management consultant, expressed hope that the bipartisan caucus formed in the last Congress would increase lawmakers’ focus on program efficiencies “not just to save money but to improve the quality of service,” he said. The caucus can move to “offering actual amendents to improve programs and be helpful as force multipliers on the legislative level,” he said.

Currently, government organizations risk $148 million for every $1 billion spent, due to poor program management, according to the new Pulse of the Profession 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, the survey found, compared with only 43 percent of other, private-sector respondents. Only 11 percent of government organizations have a senior-level program management-related role (compared with 22 percent elsewhere on average), 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 in the number of government programs that met their original goal over the past five years. “One challenge in government is simply identifying the program manager leading the spending of billions of dollars every year,” said institute president Mark Langley. 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 career classification system, noting that private-sector organizations are three times more likely than the U.S. government to have created career paths and an ongoing development process along with the leadership, technical and business skills a good program manager needs.

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 and have backed away from. “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 often-presented 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 also advocated reforming a civil service that is “slow on hiring, negligent on training, and permissive on promotions,” though 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. He encouraged the House caucus to get together with senators who care about curbing duplication, mentioning Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Tom Carper, D-Del., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Concrete examples of agency program management already in effect were described by Richard Garrison, vice chancellor of the Veterans Affairs Department’s Acquisition Academy. Managers who are willing to take the training are given coaches and can earn certification “based on objectively defined outcomes,” implemented in actual time in the life cycle of a program, he said. For the many doctors and nurses employed by VA, he said, managing commodities and services or a new building “is not what they do.”

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

(Image via Chones/