Agencies seek cure for project management woes

Better planning, risk reduction seen as key factors

'We have come to understand that the best friend a project can have is a good project manager.'

'Ira Hobbs, Treasury CIO

Henrik G. de Gyor

Orlando, Fla.'Project management challenges and the means of overcoming them remain at the forefront of senior federal IT leaders' agendas.

Agency leaders soon will enjoy, or endure, additional oversight via the Office of Management and Budget's Program Assessment Rating Tool, said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator of the Office of E-Government and Technology at the Information Processing Interagency Conference last week.

'Project management is still a major category of weakness for the agencies,' Evans said.

Other speakers at the conference echoed Evans' concern about the quality of project management in the federal government.

OMB will focus on agencies' efforts to upgrade project management, Evans said. In light of the shortage of project managers, OMB officials are encouraging agencies to shift enterprise architects to project management work, she said.

Evans emphasized that OMB is requiring agencies to use earned-value management tools and that her agency has rejected agencies' requests for approval to do EVM-lite or EVM-like project tracking.

Savings' downside

In response to a question, Evans acknowledged that if agencies demonstrate cost reduction via more efficient technology, they run the risk of getting their funds cut and losing employee slots. 'That's the reality,' she said.

Additional perspectives on vexing project management issues emerged in a panel discussion.

Mike Sledge, president of Robbins-Gioia LLC of Alexandria, Va.'s civil division, cited statistics indicating that 18 percent of IT projects fail completely and an additional 53 percent exceed their budgets, experience schedule delays or perform poorly.

One factor leading to project failure is unrealistic schedules, according to Sledge. 'We all know it takes nine months to have a baby. If you put nine women in a room for a month, it's not going to work.'

Additional factors include faulty planning, poor training and lack of a common terminology among project participants, weak support from upper management, underestimation of project complexity, poor project controls and unclear objectives, Sledge said.

Good project management combines people, processes and tools into a program office with educated and experienced leadership able to generate decisions quickly, he added.

'The best project managers are those who have been on programs that failed,' he said.

Treasury Department CIO Ira Hobbs said, 'We have come to understand that the best friend a project can have is a good project manager.'

Dave Wooten cited the need to foster the next generation of project managers. Wooten works as associate deputy assistant secretary for policy portfolio oversight and execution at the Veterans Affairs Department.

'Project management is risk management,' Wooten said, adding that it also requires agile responses to changed conditions and a customer focus.

Greg Giddens, program manager for the Homeland Security Department's SBI.net project, added that there are differences between IT operations in civilian agencies and in the Defense Department, where the Pentagon has created a career path for project managers.

The evolution of federal IT projects in the direction of using more contractors has created some unfairness in personnel rankings, Giddens said. Now that the proportion of federal employees in program offices has dwindled, an official responsible for a multimillion-dollar program might be told, 'You only manage four people, so you grade out as a 13,' he said, referring to the General Schedule-13 rank in the federal personnel system.

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