Publication date: 08/01/2013
THE EVOLUTION OF FEDERAL PROJECT MANAGEMENT
We need to internalize this idea of excellence.
— PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Throughout history mankind has labored to achieve amazing feats that defy our imagination: the great pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the D-Day invasion. Human beings—and governments—naturally seek to apply resources toward the creation of monuments, public works, and war. Although such efforts have spanned thousands of years, only in the past 60 years has the discipline of project management come to be formally recognized and defined.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) describes the federal government as “the world’s largest and most complex entity.”1 In terms of scale, the federal government expended over $3.5 trillion in fiscal year 2012 on operations and myriad projects to develop and provide new products and services—from bridge construction to aircraft development, from AIDS awareness to nuclear material disposal. The expenditure of these funds represents the single largest government marketplace in the world, employing many millions of people directly or indirectly.
The U.S. government is a massive machine, yet no single central civilian entity has the authority for establishing, promoting, or enforcing standards and guidelines for the project management discipline across the federal government enterprise. The absence of this authority is not the result of a conscious decision to allow different agencies and departments to adopt the system that works best for their particular circumstances. Rather, project management within the federal government has grown and thrived seemingly at random, developing idiosyncratically in the various agencies, laboratories, and field offices where the federal government works and where support for project management is strong.
PROJECTS IN THE FEDERAL SECTOR
What is a project? The classic definition is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The product, service, or result is developed through a specific effort that includes a beginning, middle, and end. A project is different from a program, which has two general definitions in the federal government. We define program as a group of related projects that are managed in a harmonized way and contribute to the achievement of a common goal. A program often includes elements of ongoing work or work related to specific deliverables. A vivid historical example is the Apollo program, which encompassed distinct projects aimed at developing a vehicle, buildings, control hardware and software, etc. The government also uses program to mean a continuing overall operation or grouping of services, such as Medicaid or the Small Business Administration’s loan guaranty program.
Projects satisfy a deeply held need in the human psyche to commune and conquer. Projects are designed to create change and are at once logistical, political, physical, and mental. They demand our attention and require us to work toward a common goal. Projects are the manifestation of hope—a wish for things to be better in the future if we work hard enough—combined with the need to carry out a finite activity, to set measurable goals and objectives, and to be able to declare success when the goals are reached and the objectives are met.
When everyday work is performed, we invoke the mechanisms of process management. When current work is aimed at achieving a specific goal or objective, the mechanisms of project management—scoping, scheduling, and measuring—are involved in an effort to increase the likelihood of success and realize our ambitions for some future achievement.
Infusing project management within an organization that views work as process management is as much a cultural transformation as it is a procedural one.
Project management asks us to measure twice and cut once. Philosophically this approach makes sense, but when measuring twice costs millions of dollars and takes many years, the demands on a project intensify. The forces that drive project management are largely contextual, evoked by the mission and structure of the host organization. The dynamics in the federal sector revolve around authority and power, scarcity and abundance (two elements that frequently cohabit in an organization), and change readiness and acceptance. Other factors come into play as well, and for these reasons, no two organizations will follow the same exact style of project management.
Projects in the federal sector differ in many ways from projects in other sectors or industries. The Project Management Institute (PMI)2 has identified several factors that affect how project management works in the public sector,3 particularly for large projects:
1. A wide array of important stakeholders is involved. Projects may involve input from or output to world leaders, Congress, high-ranking appointees, taxpayers, policymakers, special interest groups, and others. Managing powerful constituencies increases project complexity and invokes new dimensions of communication management.
2. Project outcomes often have great consequences. Launching spaceships, consolidating military bases, developing a vaccine to fight a pandemic, and building billion-dollar bridges all represent potentially significant public consequences. Because public projects are highly visible, a failure can live on for a generation or more.
3. The revolving political landscape means constant change. New administrations arrive every four years. Congress is in a state of gridlock while shifting priorities with the changing political winds, and agency leadership changes frequently. With each political cycle comes a new or revised set of priorities, legislation, and often a new approach to management. Civil servants and appointees are challenged to work together to effect change in the context of current political and ongoing organizational priorities.
4. Public scrutiny magnifies mistakes. Publicly funded projects must endure—indeed, must embrace—a continuous open window to the public. The public includes individual citizens, special interest groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and corporate interests. While some federal projects are shielded from continuous external inspection, freedom of information laws and the public sentiment can influence a project manager’s approach or the project’s execution or outcomes.
5. Dramatic failures can lead to intense oversight. Examples of “extreme” failures in federal projects (such as the response to Hurricane Katrina and oversight of the financial industry) often elicit intense reactions from key stakeholders, especially Congress. However, project management is a highly contextual field and Congress has not yet adopted laws specific to project management practices.
Past legislative attempts have sought to establish trigger points for greater oversight, even project cancellation, if major projects begin to fail, as with Senate Bill 3384, the Information Technology Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act of 2008. Even in the absence of legislation, however, it is possible to codify the structural components of project management, and the federal government has been moving steadily toward instituting more formalized processes.
In this context, project management in the federal government is both exciting and challenging. Successful project managers must deal with the realities of fickle priorities, political administrations, tenuous budgets, and the tangled web of regulations, laws, and policies that direct federal activities. Yet the federal government, with all its subordinate agencies, departments, administrations, and commissions, still must take the long road to successful project management, implementing one piece at a time. How did such a complicated environment come into being?
THE EVOLUTION OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT IN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
The government has used documented planning techniques since the earliest days of the nation. Journals, lists, and diagrams characterized planning documents dating back to the late 1700s. These documents often took the form of correspondence regarding administrative details.
The term project did not come into its current usage until the early 20th century. Throughout the nation’s early years, project meant something akin to an undertaking, an endeavor, or a purpose. Compare that with today’s dictionary definition of the word, “a collaborative enterprise, frequently involving research or design, that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim,”4 or PMI’s more focused definition, “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”5
Over the next 120 years, the management of projects evolved in engineering, construction, scientific endeavors, and other increasingly knowledge-centric fields. Although there was little apparent emphasis on project management as a discipline, many of the foundational concepts of management were forming at this time. Formalized project management evolved out of the management theory emerging during the industrial revolution, when concepts like standardization, quality control, work planning, and assembly construction were beginning to take hold.
In 1911, Frederick Taylor published the seminal work Principles of Scientific Management, in which he defined many of the elements of project management today: task planning and instruction, job specialization, and effective supervision. Taylor’s worldview emanated from the factory, and his theories shifted the emphasis from the worker’s role of defining and resolving task problems to the manager’s role of significantly influencing task problems. The federal government adopted these private sector-based theories and management paradigms, creating multilayered organizations staffed by managers of managers. Where manufacturing organizations were organized around assembly lines, government organizations were organized into self-contained and organized units, some oriented functionally and some operationally.
A colleague of Taylor’s, Henry Gantt, worked alongside Taylor literally and figuratively in the development of modern management theory. Gantt’s ideas greatly influenced key project management theories in use today. In particular, his ideas on work planning have contributed to modern scheduling practices. Working with production facilities that were developing weaponry and goods for the U.S. government, Gantt understood that production and assembly work was sequenced, segmented, and measurable. He devised a concept called the “balance of work,” which presented work as measurable units. Workers were required to fulfill a day’s quota of work. This work could be reduced to a plan and laid out on a graphical horizon, which later became known as the Gantt chart.
Project management began to take on its modern form after World War II. The first substantial evidence of government-based project management was the Navy’s Polaris missile project, initiated in 1956 as part of the fleet ballistic missile program, with Lockheed Missile Systems Division as the prime contractor. The Polaris project delivered a truly complex product, the most advanced submarine-based nuclear missile of the day, at a time when the United States was determined to win the nuclear arms race.
The use of multiple major contracts for one product was a new development. There were no tools for integrating the various contracts and understanding the impact on the overall program of schedule changes by contractors. To address the complexity and uncertainty associated with Polaris, the Navy’s special projects office developed the project evaluation and review technique (PERT). PERT was a key element in an “integrated planning and control system for the Fleet Ballistic Missile program.”6
Other optimization practices were developed during the 1950s, including the line of balance (LOB) programming model, which preceded PERT, and the management operation system technique (MOST), which improved on PERT estimates. The commonly used work breakdown structure (WBS), a multilevel outline of the work to be performed within a project, was introduced as a concept in concert with the implementation of PERT and came into formal use in the early 1960s.7 With the development of these new planning and reporting tools to assist in the management and integration of major weapons system components, the project management discipline demonstrated that truly complex endeavors could be estimated and organized effectively. It was during this period that the term project management was coined.
In a concentrated effort to address the increasing complexity of projects, several other key concepts emerged during these early years. The DuPont Corporation developed critical path methodology (CPM) in 1957 to support the construction and maintenance of chemical plants. DuPont and the Remington Rand corporations jointly developed an algorithmic approach to schedule development using the UNIVAC computer developed by Rand. The idea was to feed activity schedules into a computer, let the computer create the project schedule, and thereby reveal the critical versus noncritical tasks. The network of activities defined which tasks would materially delay the project and which would not. As schedule revisions occurred, CPM could be used to calculate the new set of critical tasks.
In the early 1960s, the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Defense Supply Agency jointly developed the cost and schedule control system criteria (C/SCSC) approach as a way to gain better access into large, contractor-run projects. The Minuteman project was plagued with cost and schedule overruns—and a contractor that was reluctant to share project performance data with its customer. In 1967, the Department of Defense (DoD) established a set of 35 criteria, grouped into five major categories that allowed government contract managers to understand schedule performance and cost performance. C/SCSC resulted in the core elements of what was to be eventually renamed earned value management (EVM).
The end of the 20th century was an interesting time to be involved in project management. Engineers with interest in management were given responsibility for running projects. Project management was in its early stages as a stand-alone discipline. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, project management became the focus of increased intellectual endeavors. The number of academic papers, journals, and new ideas exploded, many of which focused on federal government projects. In 1969 PMI was founded on the premise that the practices inherent in managing projects spanned a wide range of disciplines, from aeronautics to bridges to computer design and beyond.
Whereas the federal government led early development in modern project management, private industry and academia led after the 1970s. The construction industry boomed in the 1980s, leading to major advances in estimating and logistics. The emergence of the personal computer enabled individual project managers to automate planning and control activities themselves, rather than rely solely on project personnel. Of course, on the larger projects, planning and control staffs were still essential.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government adopted many of these new practices. In 1976, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued Circular A-109, the first federal directive to address program management. This document solidified the role of C/SCSC in federal projects. Circular A-109 and the C/SCSC practices remained in place until 1996, when A-109 underwent a major revision. The development and revision of federal guidance related to project management was a clear sign that practices implemented within various civilian and defense organizations were being codified for government-wide use.
The 1990s saw a big push for governmental accountability and reform. Political winds drove key legislation that introduced strategic planning, the chief information officer role, and technology planning. Large technology projects were prone to delay and failure, requiring increased visibility, management, and justification. In response, OMB introduced a series of requirements dealing with capital and technology expenditures, reporting, and management. In June 2002, OMB issued regulations that applied to major acquisitions and major IT systems or projects that required the implementation of earned value management systems using the American National Standard Institute standards (ANSI/EIA 748-A-1998),8 officially ending reliance on C/SCSC.
PROJECT MANAGEMENT IN GOVERNMENT TODAY
Now is an exciting time to be a project management practitioner in the federal government. Project management is reaching a new level of maturity and recognition as a critical skill set. The project management career is on the rise. A new breed of manager is emerging—one that was raised on the precepts of project management. Federal project management is evolving from a purely homespun set of practices into a formal discipline. Evidence of this evolution abounds:
• Organizations are seeking to balance technical expertise with project management competencies, often having to decide whether to assign technical experts to manage projects or skilled project managers to lead highly technical projects. Achieving this balance raises the question of what is more important in managing a project—expertise in the discipline or in the subject matter of the project.
• In the past several years, the federal government has begun to promote agencies’ development of an internal certification process for project and program managers. This trend, coupled with the emergence of “new” skills that integrate with “traditional” skills (e.g., negotiation, facilitation, personnel management), is placing demands on federal project managers to adjust and adapt to new project environments. Acquiring and honing these skills will be essential for project managers and projects to achieve success.
• Legislative and policy efforts have introduced greater oversight into large projects. This increased oversight has contributed to advancements in project performance measurement, including the development and implementation of EVM practices.
• Project management technologies have advanced to form a system that supports the full lifecycle of projects, from concept and planning to implementation, operations, and maintenance.
Federal project management is evolving from an ad hoc set of activities into a more formal discipline.
Despite these achievements in project management, challenges will continue to limit the ability of the federal government to manage projects successfully. These challenges include the following:
• Project size. Despite difficult economic times, there is no shortage of large-scale projects. Both civilian and defense agencies are in the throes of planning and implementing projects that are large in scale, scope, budget, and importance. Many of these projects represent the collaborative efforts of multiple organizations, yet personnel are not familiar with the concepts of project management.
• Intervention into troubled projects. With no consistent approach for escalating, intervening in, and resolving projects in crisis, agencies often must take steps to fix troubled projects without clear guidance. Timely intervention, as early in the project lifecycle as possible, is a critical success factor for troubled projects, yet often agency leaders do not have sufficient insight into the project or the knowledge and experience to understand the warning signals at an early stage.
• Managing through the bureaucracy. Project success often depends on the ability to remain nimble and free of classic bureaucratic constraints. The federal government has yet to define protocols and safeguards that will allow projects to move quickly when needed, eliminating unnecessary or burdensome activities while still adhering to checks and balances to protect project investments.
• Mission diversity. The diversity of missions presents a challenge for establishing enterprise project management structures and practices in many large agencies. To operate effectively in the face of this diversity, project management expertise must permeate the organization and be adapted to the “local” environment.
• Acquisition vs. project management. OMB has developed policies that promote sound and consistent acquisition policies across the federal government. The introduction and implementation of the federal acquisition certification for program and project managers (FAC-P/PM) is an example of efforts to foster greater linkages between the acquisition and project management specialties.
• Unpredictable funding. Many government projects can’t count on their budgets being fully funded from year to year. If recent experience is a guide, this will be the norm rather than the exception. Some simply hope for the best and plan that the money will be there, while others spend precious time planning and developing “what-if” scenarios to address possible variations in funding levels.
• Resource allocation, capacity, and capability. Increasing project complexity demands increased project management capabilities. The “inventory” of trained or certified project managers does not meet the demand in most federal organizations, so on-the-job training is common. Assigning the right project manager to the right project at the right time remains a challenge for many government organizations.
The federal project management environment is rife with successes, challenges, and opportunities.
WHO’S WHO IN FEDERAL PROJECT MANAGEMENT
Numerous organizations are involved in the development of project management-related policies or the promotion of best practices. Some are formal government organizations, and others are groups or associations organized around a topic or a particular role.
Office of Management and Budget
Part of the executive branch, OMB supports the President in developing and implementing the federal budget. OMB also oversees executive branch agencies and ensures the effectiveness of agency programs. As part of this mission, OMB has played an integral role in developing project management guidance at the organizational and individual levels. Working primarily through acquisition rules and regulations, OMB has made significant contributions toward the development of a federal standard for project management.
Within OMB, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) is the primary driver of government-wide project management practices. OFPP was created in 1974 to administer federal procurement policies. Today, the office plays a key role in defining how large projects are reviewed and rated.
The Office of Federal Procurement Policy is a driver of government-wide project management practices.
As a result of large wartime expenditures and a public outcry for greater accountability, GAO, originally known as the General Accounting Office, was created under the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.9 GAO has long served a critical audit function in the U.S. government. GAO strives to help federal agencies improve performance, ensure accountability, and meet statutory requirements.
GAO has a major impact on projects across the federal government through its audit and review function. GAO evaluates hundreds of projects annually—projects of all sizes and in all areas of expertise. It maintains a “high-risk” list of large-scale projects that are failing to meet the objectives set by the planning team. GAO maintains reports on thousands of failed or endangered projects.
Chief Information Officers Council
The CIO Council (www.cio.gov) provides a venue for interagency best practice and information sharing on information technology. Originally established in 1996 by Executive Order 13011, the CIO Council was codified into law by Congress in the E-Government Act of 2002. The CIO Council comprises a number of committees that address all aspects of federal IT, including project management.
The council issues memos and work products that address improving IT project management. It also maintains a list of training resources, survey results, and other information that can assist agencies in advancing project management.
Federal Acquisition Institute
Established in 1976, the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) (www.fai.gov) “facilitates career development and strategic human capital management in support of a professional federal acquisition workforce.”10 FAI has developed a certification program for federal project and program managers. Dubbed the “federal acquisition certification for program and project managers,” or FAC-P/PM, this certification establishes a set of baseline competencies and related requirements. The FAC-P/PM certification is relatively new, but it is being adopted by a host of agencies.
Project Management Institute
PMI (www.pmi.org) is a nongovernment, global association of project management practitioners with a membership of more than 265,000 across 170 countries. PMI offers a set of credentials corresponding to different specialties, such as project management, program management, and scheduling. PMI supports a number of programs aimed at the federal government. First and foremost is the Washington, D.C., PMI chapter. As the largest PMI chapter in the world, it offers an active membership a wide array of programs and symposiums.
The PMI government community of practice is a virtual community that brings together elected and civil servant government officials, as well as contractors and others, for the purpose of improving the management of projects in the public sector. The PMI® Roundtable is a government-focused venue for information and practice sharing. The PMI® Forum is an executive-level environment for discussing strategic and leadership issues in project management. PMI also advocates for the profession through its Washington, D.C., office.
CHALLENGES AHEAD FOR PROJECT MANAGEMENT IN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
At the heart of project management today are questions that have yet to be answered to the satisfaction of skeptics. As indicated by in-depth studies by PMI and others, efforts are still being undertaken to determine whether project management delivers value. In the case of the federal government, is value returned to the taxpayer in the form of improved services, more modern infrastructures, or a stronger economy? Answering this fundamental question will enable the dialogue to shift toward considering the answers that will improve the project management discipline—which tools to use, when to use them, and the best way to use them in the federal government environment.
Describing project management within the numerous and diverse agencies, departments, authorities, and commissions of the federal government is daunting. On one level, project management is a function that has a clear set of objectives. Yet below the surface is a complex and highly diverse web of organizational cultures, missions, funding streams, and geography. The forces that bind federal agencies together include a common set of procurement laws and regulations, while other forces—the myriad legislative and appropriations requirements—demand that they work separately.
The practical experiences of federal project managers, sponsors, and executives speak to these issues and trends. President Obama’s suggestion that we need to internalize the idea of excellence not only offers a challenge to the federal workforce but also describes the efforts underway in many government agencies today: making excellence the standard for managing projects.
2. PMI, PMBOK, PMP, CAPM, and OPM3 are registered marks, and PgMP is a mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.
3. “Project Management in the Public Sector,” www.pmi.org/Knowledge-Center/Publications-PM-Network/Feature-ProjectManagementinthePublicSector.aspx (accessed May 2013); see also the Government Extension to the PMBOK® Guide, Third Edition (Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, 2006).
5. Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Fifth Edition (Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, 2013).
6. Gregory T. Haugan, Project Planning and Scheduling (Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, 2002), p. 28.
7. Gregory T. Haugan, The Work Breakdown Structure in Government Contracting (Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, 2003), pp. 7–9.
8. American National Standards Institute, “Earned Value Management System.” ANSI/EIA-748-B, June 2007.
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