Lean on Industry to Boost Program Management, Panelists Say

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By Daniel Ennis and Sam Skolnik

Government should lean on industry expertise while implementing the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act, a panel of analysts said July 19 at a discussion hosted by the Project Management Institute and Bloomberg Government.

The government doesn’t have a set of standards to manage programs, but industry does, Rob Burton, a partner in the government contracts group at Crowell & Moring, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Industry’s hope is, why don’t you use the same ones we’re using? Then we’ll be on the same sheet of music,” said Burton, who previously served as acting and deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Some of the challenge may be in providing definitions where gray areas exist, the panelists said.

Program management includes components of acquisition, information technology, human resources, and other disciplines, said Alan Balutis, a distinguished fellow and senior director of the North American public sector at Cisco Systems. The legislation is meant to call program management out as a separate discipline in government, he said.

A Deeper Look at ‘Other’

Burton recalled a survey in which program managers were asked to identify their job series, and about 40 percent of participants marked “other.”

With the new legislation, which former President Barack Obama signed in December, program managers may feel, for the first time, that they’re viewed as important, Burton said.

Another challenge is that large programs cut across agency boundaries, said Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. In such cases, one agency may be reluctant to take the lead.

There’s no uniform focus on program management at the Office of Management and Budget level, Burton said, which is why the OMB should reach out to industry.

“People on the government side are doing this only once,” Balutis said of managing a program, while those in industry have regular beginning-to-end focus on it.

Focus on Success

The government needs to more effectively use success stories in training program managers, Balutis said. There’s an intense focus on programs that go over budget and past scheduled deadlines, he said.

“That would be like studying medicine by only doing autopsies,” he said.

The internal bureaucracy of government will make the legislation uneasy to inherit, but the Trump administration could see the legislation as a gift, Burton said.

“How many times has the president tweeted that he wants to see programs delivered ahead of schedule and under budget?” Burton asked, noting that if programs were 1 percent more efficient, billions of dollars could be saved.

However, not everyone may want to be a day-to-day manager, Balutis said. “If you look at why projects fail, often it isn’t budget, it isn’t IT. It’s management — a fundamental, key thing. And that can be hard to focus on when everybody wants to be a change agent.”

Homeland Security Bills

Sponsors of several Department of Homeland Security acquisition reform bills expressed optimism about their chances for passing through Congress despite being stalled in the Senate, a top House committee staffer said at another of the panel’s discussions.

The three main goals of the legislation are empowering agency acquisition officers at DHS; increasing dialogue with contracting groups and companies; and developing a multiyear acquisition strategy, said Ryan Consaul, staff director for the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight and management efficiency.

“It’s really time to focus on program management and acquisition reform at DHS,” he said.

That focus might be easier, given the change in presidential administration, including the agency’s newly sworn-in Deputy Director Elaine Duke, who has a deep background in the acquisition field, Consaul said. Duke previously served as chief procurement officer at DHS.

Streamlining Acquisitions

Five bills working their way through Congress would promote procurement reform at DHS in a range of ways.

The bills would streamline acquisitions in a general sense by codifying the processes agency officials use to develop strategies, and would strengthen the agency’s procurement chain of command, in part by bolstering the procurement oversight authority of the DHS undersecretary for management.

Each of the five bills in question — all introduced within a week of each other in late February and early March — passed the House by voice vote and has been referred to the Senate Committee of Homeland Security and Government Affairs. Although four of the five moved to the committee in March, none has yet been acted on.

Benjamin Rhodeside, policy director for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Larry Joseph, a Georgetown University professor of project, program and portfolio management, also spoke on the panel, the first of three.

Speakers on the second panel focused on how improvements in project management programs can aid federal agencies — especially in meeting their acquisition-related goals.

Agency projects are aided greatly when managers can anticipate — at the beginning of the process — how the projects will end, said Amy Haseltine, executive director of the Office of IT Strategy, Policy, and Governance within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Staffing is also critical, she said. From the beginning of the project, she said, “you really need to think holistically and have the right people in place.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ennis in Washington at dennis@bna.com; Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ennis at dennis@bna.com

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