Policies and Practices: Many agencies fall short on project management

Jason Miller

Some federal officials have questioned the government's ability to manage IT projects.

Mark Forman, the Office of Management and Budget's associate director for e-government and IT, has said agencies need to find 1,400 project managers, half of them to work on projects on OMB's at-risk list.

The problem has a significant effect on many projects.

OMB said that in the fiscal 2004 budget request, in a sampling of IT projects, cost growth ranged from 10 percent to 225 percent.

The General Accounting Office criticized the Defense Department for its lack of a departmentwide IT investment management process. On one project, DOD spent more than $126 million over seven years before terminating it because failed to produce results.

Early in his tenure at OMB, Forman recognized agencies' shortcomings in project management and is making changes.

Others in federal IT management are taking up the cause as well.

The CIO Council established a working group that is polling CIOs to find gaps in project management. It will make recommendations that will become the basis for OMB policy, CIO Council guidance and agency implementation.

And GoLearn.gov later this summer will launch 30 courses on IT project management that the Housing and Urban Development Department developed with Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va.
GoLearn has seen an increase in the number of federal employees enrolling in project management courses in recent months. In fact, over the past 10 months, 716 federal employees completed the free project management course the site offers.

How did the need for project managers become so dire?

Even though many projects have financial problems, managers have focused too much on cost and schedule and not enough on the other aspects of good project management, according to one GAO analyst.

Other agency and government observers said project managers too often have been those people who are good at managing tasks but are weak with the bigger picture.

While OMB and the CIO Council work on a formal definition of a qualified project manager, I came up with my own after speaking with a variety of government experts and academics over the past few months. A qualified project manager must be able to manage the administrative aspects of a project as well as think analytically to solve problems. And he or she must communicate well with management, contractors and employees, while understanding the agency's culture.

It's a tall order perhaps, but there are successes. Many of OMB's 25 e-government projects show the mettle of good project management.

Online rule-making, for instance, was shifted to the Environmental Protection Agency from the Transportation Department, and project managers changed the technology to a joint agency system rather than a commercial one. And still project managers launched the portal on budget and pretty close to schedule.

The focus on project management without a doubt is a good thing and will make a difference in the long run. But government and industry experts agree that OMB needs to find some short-term solutions, such as encouraging more project managers to take courses through sites such as GoLearn or the National Defense University, or running one-day training seminars, to establish some much-needed stability to IT initiatives.

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