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By Sam Skolnik
Sept. 28 — Congress is close to passing a bill that, for the first time, would institute a dedicated career path for federal contract program managers.
The House passage last week of the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act, S. 1550, was a step long awaited by advocates of acquisition efficiency within the government.
The bill would help to streamline the federal acquisition process, and by doing so would be of real benefit to agencies and government contractors alike by saving them time and money, proponents said.
“It’s time for government to make program management a real emphasis,” Robert Burton, a partner in Crowell & Moring’s government contracts group and a former deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), told Bloomberg BNA. “I view this as significant acquisition reform.”
The bill would set governmentwide standards for program managers — in part by engaging with the private sector to identify best practices — and would create a formal job series and a new career path for federal program and project managers.
The measure also would mandate that a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) create a Program Management Policy Council, which would act as an interagency forum to set guidelines to improve practices.
The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), passed out of the Senate by unanimous consent last November, though the chamber will have to vote on the bill a second time because of some changes made by the House.
On Sept. 22, the House passed its bill by a 404-11 vote. A Senate aide said the bill likely would return to the Senate for final passage when Congress comes back in session in November.
The bill would create a kind of cross-agency community of program management workers and specialists, guided by policy direction from the new policy council within OMB, Mark Langley, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute, told Bloomberg BNA.
Instituting a formal career path and standardized practices would boost the skill sets of program managers throughout government — a needed reform, Langley said. “We know there are pockets of excellence in the government, but there’s inconsistency,” he said.
More consistent program management excellence could save the government billions of dollars, studies suggest — potentially allowing that saved money to go toward a wide range of underfunded and taxpayer-coveted programs.
A 2013 study by Accenture, a management consulting firm, concluded that by increasing public-sector efficiency by 1 percent per year, the U.S. government could save as much as $995 billion by 2025.
Ten percent of federal agency funds are wasted, on average, because of poor project performance, Langley said studies sponsored by his group have shown. Because of the ways the bill would promote government efficiency, and because of the bill’s strong bipartisan support, he said he was optimistic that the bill would pass through Congress and become law before too long.
The measure would affect how acquisition teams function at least as much as any other federal agency management units — and it likely would result in a big impact. This is because procurement dollars make up a large percentage of agencies’ overall budgets. At NASA, for example, according to a recent interview with senior procurement executive Bill McNally, procurement comprises about 80 percent of the agency’s $19 billion overall budget.
Moreover, historically, the need for program management effectiveness often has stemmed from acquisition-related governmental missteps.
In June 2015, Ernst noted that the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that month showed how government agencies could benefit from program management standards. OPM’s poor management of its IT modernization efforts, for example, may have been partly at fault for the data breach, she said, citing a report from the OPM Inspector General’s office.
A white paper authored by a three-person panel from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in July 2015 noted the acute need for the government to adopt program management principles.
“Program management has been embraced by the private sector with demonstrated success across a range of industries and endeavors,” the NAPA white paper found. “However, the adoption of program management in the federal government has been uneven. With the exception of the Department of Defense and some civilian agencies, such as NASA and the Department of Energy, program management capabilities are generally weak, with some pockets of strength.”
The paper found that most studies that have looked at the need for program management standards in government were undertaken “in the context of efforts to improve federal government acquisition, and IT acquisition more specifically.”
The impact of a bill such as S. 1550 would be clearly felt among agency acquisition workforces, Dan Chenok, one of the white paper authors, told Bloomberg BNA in an interview.
Standardized practices, for example, would encourage program managers in large procurements to bring in all of the stakeholders, including industry representatives, at an early stage to discuss how the process is functioning, said Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, who co-authored the paper as a NAPA fellow.
The manager could then take that information to develop as accurate a set of requirements as possible to promote an efficient procurement, he said.
The bill applies to all federal agencies except the Defense Department, which has implemented program management reforms for its acquisition workforce through the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act.
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