Program Management Is Much More Complex Than Many Leaders Understand

There isn’t a single optimal approach. Different types of programs demand different skill sets.

The Government Accountability Office has long bemoaned the dearth of effective program management across government. Its list of high-risk programs, which encompass such disparate management areas as the national flood insurance program, the 2020 Census, Defense contract management and the security clearance process, reflects how widespread the problem is.

A 2015 study by the National Academy of Public Administration reinforces GAO’s concerns, concluding that “institutionalizing the discipline of program management across the federal government should be a top priority.” This included creating an integrated approach to program management, creating a professional community and clarifying roles and responsibilities. But what is the best approach for doing this?

A Career Path  

By the end of 2016, Congress adopted legislation reflecting many of the Academy’s recommendations, including the development of a formal job series and career path for federal program managers and a standards-based model for program management. This law, the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act, required the Office of Management and Budget to develop implementation guidance and required agencies to develop specific implementation plans. The OMB guidance was issued this past June, with a timetable for agency plans to be developed by the end of the year.

A new study by Janet Weiss, University of Michigan, set out to identify ways to increase the chances of successful implementation of the new law. She cautions both OMB and agencies as they take the next step, to appreciate that program management is more nuanced and complex than it may seem at first glance. Her research concludes: “Most PMIAA requirements to create standards, competencies, job careers, and training assume that program managers all work in similar ways. In practice, they do not. As the implementation of PMIAA moves ahead, policymakers need to appreciate the full range of skills and experiences needed to effectively manage programs of different types.”

In coming to this conclusion, Weiss used a widely-regarded assessment framework that diagnoses what makes organizations effective and used it to assess whether the requirements outlined in the new law will succeed in improving program management. This framework has been used in thousands of public, private, and nonprofit sector workplaces, and with over 100,000 managers. According to Weiss, it “highlights differences in the skills and strategies that make managers effective in the context of different kinds of programs.”

Four Sets of Leadership Skills  

The assessment framework describes four different sets, or quadrants, of leadership skills that contribute to effective organizational performance. Weiss notes that these skill sets “are in tension with one another and each of the quadrants in some way represents contradictory pushes and pulls on the organization.” Furthermore, “each quadrant has a dominant managerial style which matches the kinds of organizational performance that are valued by the organization.”

In her study, Weiss arrays the 15 different types of federal programs identified by OMB (such as training, insurance, grants, and investigations) across the four quadrants in the assessment framework and matches them up to the types of management skills and experience needed to be successful. In addition, she identifies federal executives whose leadership exemplify these different skills, which translates the potential abstractness of the four-part framework into a practitioner’s perspective:

1. The “collaborate” quadrant. This quadrant is composed of programs and program managers that require trust among participants. For example, state-administered benefit programs, such as nutrition programs for women, infants and children. Effective managers in this quadrant are able to develop trust, commitment, morale and expertise within their team and network. A program manager who reflects these skills is Susan Angell, formerly the leader of the veterans homeless network jointly run by the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments. Angell noted the that the network members were “doing things like housing 100 veterans in 100 days, cutting [in half] a process that took maybe 200 days.”

2. The “create” quadrant. This quadrant prizes flexibility, innovation and adaptation to rapid change. It is most prevalent in research and development programs and those in dynamic environments. It requires program managers who create a clear vision, encourage risk-taking, and promote flexibility in approach. An example of such a manager is Larry Sampler, with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs. He says his team promotes innovation from contractors and partners because they “look for programs where we get multiple benefits from each program. It is no longer enough to have just an agriculture program. Our ag programs have gender components, involve technology, involve governance.” As a result, they increased Afghan lifespans by reducing tainted water and increasing access to medical care.

3. The “get results” quadrant. Programs and program managers in this quadrant focus on financial outcomes and track the expectation of external stakeholders as well as program customers. These managers embrace strategies that focus on speed, feedback, and finding better ways to meet expectations. An example of such a manager is Jim Williams, formerly the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service in the General Services Administration. He noted, “We are an organization that does not get appropriations. We exist based upon the fees we collect for the services we provide. Our customers almost always can vote with their feet, so we have to prove ourselves every single day.”

4. The “control” quadrant. This quadrant encompasses programs and managers who have direct operational responsibility for delivering benefits, products, or services. This might involve building veterans hospitals or dams. It can also involve service-oriented initiatives, such as a campaign to reduce improper payments in Medicare or Medicaid. Managerial characteristics in this quadrant include: accuracy, cost containment, use of technology, coordination, discipline, efficiency, and planning. For example, Shantanu Agrawal led the Center for Program Integrity at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. His strategies drew directly from the Control quadrant: “So, challenge number one is always achieving that coordination across the agency,” he said. A second challenge “is how to prioritize the various issues we encounter, making sure we are going after issues that represent real vulnerabilities.”

Of course, in reality program managers need a mix of skills. However, there typically is a dominant quadrant—and a set of program management skills to match—for each program.

Applying Insights   

Weiss distilled her research into four broad findings and conclusions that she thinks would improve the success of implementing PMIAA:

First, programs vary in the demands they make on managers. Successful managers need to develop the judgment and skill to match their strategies to the needs of the program. Weiss writes, “One set of standards will not apply equality to all federal programs.” She recommends that OMB and the Office of Personnel Management develop standards reflecting different program needs.

Second, effective program managers need to develop a portfolio of skills, experiences, and strategies that address the particular challenges presented by their programs. Providing only one kind of program management training will not meet the needs of the wide spectrum of program managers. Skills and competencies needed will vary, depending on the type of program to be managed. Weiss concludes: “Establishing a separate job series and career path for program and project managers may not accomplish its intended purpose.” She suggests that communities of practice may be an important mechanism to share expertise across agencies and program types.

Third, program managers face limits on their authority and power from a dense thicket of rules and constraints rooted in law and policy, but effective managers are not paralyzed by these limits. Successful managers use their understanding of the rules to carve out flexibility and mobilize energy and coalitions to move their programs forward.

And fourth, program managers with the right skills in the right roles have been critical to performance of many government programs. Efforts to improve program performance can build on the expertise and commitment to public service among federal executives. Weiss encourages agencies to frame program management as an attractive career choice.