Tackling the challenges in government project management

It's no secret Uncle Sam has been slow to catch on when it comes to project management.

Where corporate America has embraced such practices for decades, the federal government has just begun to quantify individual projects using cost vs. value parameters.

'We are obviously along our way, but all the federal government needs to be improving its processes,' said Will Brimberry, a project and program manager for the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration.

Yet, he notes, pockets of excellence exist.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for one, is widely acknowledged to have a PM protocol even more sophisticated than the private sector. Its Academy of Program and Project Management Leadership has become a model for all branches of government.

The Defense Department also is on the cutting edge.

'These [agencies] are going to pull everyone else up,' Brimberry said, adding the Office of Management and Budget already has made great strides in putting such efforts in motion.

To that end, GSA, in partnership with all the major agencies, is completing a new study to help raise the bar on project management.

Sponsored by the CIO Council, the committee explored existing research from the public and private sectors, conducted brainstorming sessions with major universities and sought perspective from professional trade groups including the Project Management Institute and the International Council for Systems Engineering.

The final draft of the report, not yet circulated internally, identified seven systemic problem areas evident in all branches of government. It also recommends five fix-it strategies. They are:

The problem areas:

  • Federal culture, starting with senior management, does not consistently demonstrate knowledge, behaviors and values that reinforce effective project management.

  • Federal project management structure and processes do no reflect sound practices in portfolio and project management.

  • There is no clear governance process. Manager accountability is not clearly defined and authority is not always granted to help them achieve objectives.

  • Effective project management is not consistently practiced throughout the government.

  • The federal government lacks a unique professional identity for those managing projects.

  • No clearly defined project management performance standard.

  • Agencies encounter barriers to sharing project management human resources where needed.

    To combat these challenges, the working group recommends first and foremost that the government create a federal project management office with resources and responsibilities to provide guidance to those in the field.

    Second, the group seeks to create greater accountability for investment decisions. That means clearly identifying the managers' roles.

    Third, it recommends the government establish project management standards and processes based on best practices, which includes developing a common lexicon for better communication.

    The last two recommendations would develop a defined career path for project managers within the government and better define the project manager skill set to others on their team, starting with senior managers.

    Whether each of those recommendations is implemented, however, Brimberry notes that efforts to improve project management on the federal level will continue.

    'Good project management is always a continuous effort,' he said. 'It never stops.'

    Shelly K. Schwartz is a freelance writer from Maplewood, N.J. with 10 years experience covering business- and finance-related news.
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