The Art of Managing Federal Projects & Programs

two legislators review documents in state house

Project management has always been tough. Meeting customer expectations, while at the same time delivering a quality solution on time, under budget, and with all the requirements is getting tough every day. The rapid pace of getting modern projects from concept to delivery continues unabated. All of this, and more, constantly puts increasing pressure on the project manager, in particular, to ensure each project makes it across the finish line. In short, projects are often more complicated and time is an ever-shrinking commodity. Easier said than done, and at times compared to the Greek mythological story of Sisyphus, a king punished in Hades by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit.

And yet all the challenges in the private sector pale when compared to successfully managing the myriad of the $4 trillion-dollar projects and programs in the federal government. What private company could stay in business if less than two-thirds of their strategic initiatives ever meet established goals and business needs? Or worse, if they wasted $101 million for every $1 billion spent on projects and programs? How can this be with all of the enhancements in technology and tools over the past 30 years and more? Why do federal projects and programs fall short in meeting the critical success factors? Probably due in large part to the historic nature of the federal government, but even more so due to vague and shifting requirements, schedules with no firm or shifting targets, and inadequately defined funds to complete the work.

Another compelling reason could be the large size and complexity of many federal projects. Many projects are simply too big and need more in order to be successful. And lastly, for the most part, the federal government is not organized to deliver projects on time, within scope, and under budget. Shifts in the work place, new employee models, and customer support expectations are challenging today’s modern project manager to adapt and survive. Accountability is often provided at the contractual level, not necessarily the project or program level. No need for RACI charts—it’s almost as though the Triple Constraint model did not apply to federal projects and programs.

A few federal organizations have consistently good track records in project and program management, among them the Department of Energy and NASA (you remember, the space guys). One reason may be their scientific approach to meet their strategic objectives. The basic disciplines used by their staff compels these types of federal organizations to follow established procedures and processes to achieve project success. So what about the rest of the federal government, where projects often fail to meet the basic requirements, cost more, or take (much) longer than estimated? How does a modern federal agency manage to succeed today with an increased emphasis to deliver more in scope, faster in time, and still under budget? Or are they just condemned to repeat project failures of the past again and again? In short, is success (the triple constraint met with risks managed, quality built-in, and customer/end-user satisfaction) possible at all?

The answer is YES, federal departments and agencies can break the mold and develop innovative approaches to solve complex problems faced today. We have to go “back to the future” to find the answer (the first movie, not the next two in the trilogy).  Today’s modern federal project management approach needs to be (even more) agile and flexible. This includes establishing the basic project management tenets of:

  • Defining In-/Out-of-Scope and Objectives. Understand the project objectives, who the stakeholders are, what they expect to be delivered, and enlist their support. Answer the question: What are we doing? Put together a descriptive project charter so everyone is on board and agrees with the project’s objectives and major events. The buy-in is critical.
  • Plan Your Project’s Success. Define what activities are required, estimate the time and effort required for each activity, determine the dependencies between activities, and decide a realistic schedule to complete them. Decide what tangible things will be delivered and document them in enough detail to enable someone else to produce them correctly and effectively. Set milestones, which identify critical delivery dates during the project’s life cycle. Document an effective and well-structured project plan and schedule. Get the necessary buy-in for your approach.
  • Communicate Often and Effectively While Tracking and Reporting Project Progress. Monitor and compare the actual progress with the planned progress. Change will undoubtedly happen and you need to be proactive in tracking and reporting your project.
  • Manage the Change. Change happens in the best of projects. Stakeholders often change their mind about what must be delivered. Sometimes the business environment changes after the project starts, so assumptions made at the beginning of the project may no longer be valid. This often means the scope or deliverables of the project need changing. Not managing changes effectively is often a reason why projects fail, so developing a change management process is critical.
  • Be Risk-Transparent. Risks are better managed than ignored and will vary for each project, but the main risks to a project must be identified as soon as possible. Plans must be made to avoid the risk, or, if the risk cannot be avoided, to mitigate the risk to lessen its impact if it occurs. Constantly review risks and look out for new ones, as they can occur at any moment.

A federal bill signed in 2016 to improve project/program management (non-DoD) at the federal level is a great start. This law, the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (PMIAA for short) is a first step on the long road to improve federal projects and programs. PMIAA aims to enhance accountability and implement sound practices in project and program management throughout the federal government, which will reduce wasteful government spending. Among other things, this law:

  • Establishes the framework and approach to promote improvements in program management staffing, training, policy, and performance; and more efficiently advance and deliver the organization’s mission to the American public 
  • Establishes the framework for and coordinates the conduct of annual program portfolio reviews that are aligned with annual Strategic Review process
  • Conducts reviews of program portfolios to ensure that major programs are being managed effectively and to identify and disseminate best practices and lessons learned
  • Coordinates the development of program management policies and processes that are aligned to government-wide standards and principles for managing programs and are refined as needed to reflect best practices
  • Identifies strategies to ensure that each organization has an effectively trained and equipped program management workforce, readily addresses competency gaps, and supports and enhances program management capabilities through education, training, mentoring, and personal development

Project and program management at federal agencies will continue to be an issue until each organization realizes that the way forward involves stepping back in time to apply the best practices in a meaningful and positive manner to achieve success. The work has begun to implement the provisions of PMIAA. It will take time but offers a good chance for federal organizations and agencies to deliver on the best that project management has to offer. Projects and programs in the federal government can be successful, but like a lot of things, it takes focus, drive, and determination. PMIAA is a start, but it will take a major cultural shift in the way each organization manages its project or program portfolio.

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