Flickr user markjhandel

The Path to Better Management of Government’s Huge Programs

A new law guides the way to delivering on large-scale change initiatives.

With the enactment of the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act late last year, the federal government has the opportunity and mandate to address two long-standing challenges: delivering successfully on large-scale change initiatives and addressing the dearth of well-qualified program managers across executive branch agencies. For a government that operates through the execution of programs -- many of them large and complex -- such gaps represent enormous risk.

Even in a modular, agile world, the role of program managers remains essential, because change initiatives are more likely to cross multiple organizations. After all, the federal government manages more than $3 trillion in annual budgets and hundreds of huge programs critical to the nation and its citizens.

But the federal landscape remains littered with what Peat-Marwick once dubbed “runaway systems” -- projects that are over budget, behind schedule and failing to deliver promised benefits and functionality. Thanks to the PMIAA, the Office of Management and Budget now has the responsibility to implement a set of policies to improve program management in government. As the Trump administration takes shape, OMB should leverage this opportunity to increase the probability of successfully delivering on its initiatives.

About a decade ago, the five authors of this article began meeting as a group over breakfast (with the self-imposed moniker the “Breakfast Club”) to discuss the need for better program management. We all have served, or currently serve, in senior government management positions. Our focus then and now has been on mission outcomes and results. We believe results begin with effective management, which is built on a legacy of successful practices often referred to as portfolio, program or project management.

We came at the issue with the shared conviction that the dynamics of the environment demanded aggressive steps to modernize the government’s human capital structure and processes. Nowhere is this truer than program management. Almost eight years ago, we set out our thoughts in a paper, issued under the auspices of the then-Council for Excellence in Government, that outlined a set of steps essential to the performance improvement and results American taxpayers expect.

Of course, some things have changed since then. The pace of technology is more rapid today. Government, like the commercial sector, has changed its approach to the concept of programs, shifting to a model in which modular steps and agile processes have largely displaced traditional, large-scale “waterfall” strategies. Still, the need for strong program management skills remains central to success.

With the passage of PMIAA, a key step has been taken: recognition of program management, and the unique skills that comprise it, as a distinct career field. For our initial paper, we were able to document through survey research and focus groups that far too many agency program managers actually had little to no training in the skill sets of program management. As we noted at the time, “outside of the Department of Defense and a few civilian agencies, program management is not ‘institutionalized’ as an established management discipline.”

In the intervening years, some progress has been made, and the recently enacted legislation represents another significant step. But as OMB implements the current statute, several additional measures should be taken to make the objectives of the legislation a reality.

First, we believe there needs to a clear line of leadership. Program management is a core component of agency success and should be treated and embraced as such. Leaders -- including program managers, acquisition executives, chief information officers and heads of other key stakeholder groups -- should be held jointly accountable for success based on a common set of measures.  

Second, we need to establish clarity of responsibility and accountability for the delivery of program results. The program manager should be the tip of the spear, with both the authority to make decisions and the responsibility for program outcomes. Today, lines of authority and accountability are far too often blurred or nonexistent. Having a consistent measuring system for large programs, linked to governance, is essential in every agency and should be viewed as such by agency leaders.

Third, with the establishment under PMIAA of the program management career field, we must move quickly to design and implement a consistent training and professional development process for program managers, as well as a clear and contemporary set of requirements for hiring them. We should foster the kind of cross-functional and cross-sector training and development that is the norm in the commercial sector.

Change management, a skill critical to driving success in managing complex programs involving multiple stakeholders, should be a key element of this curriculum. Other components of training can be found in industry best practice documents, such as the 7-S for Success framework for information technology programs released by the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council.

Fourth, to help program managers continue to grow and learn, OMB should ensure that the Program Management Policy Council created by the statute is set up effectively. Through such a forum, program managers can share best practices, develop and pursue new ideas and collaborate with other functional leaders. Creating a community around a culture of strong program management is an integral part of building capacity. Moreover, the council, chaired by the deputy director of OMB for management, should meet regularly with top agency and administration officials, as well as other functional leadership councils, to review program progress, identify potential fixes for ongoing problems and gain broader insights.

With these building blocks in place, agencies can zero in on what is most important: performance. Programs fail for many reasons, including inadequate governance, meaningless metrics, and insufficient capacity for or willingness to change. Strong program management can help overcome each of those barriers; without it, they are likely to endure.

PMIAA provides critical fuel for a vital mission. Now it’s up to all of us to build the high-performance engine that will use that fuel to drive us forward.

Alan Balutis is a distinguished fellow and senior director, North American Public Sector, for Cisco Systems’ Business Solutions Group. Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Greg Giddens is executive director of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction at the Veterans Affairs Department. Stan Soloway is president and CEO of Celero Strategies. Jim Williams is a partner at Schambach and Williams Consulting.

Photo: Flickr user markjhandel