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Establishing Effective Government Program and Project Management Offices

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Bill Brantley
May 16, 2017

PMOAs the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) works on implementing the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (PMIAA), Federal agencies are considering how to incorporate PMIAA into their agency programs and processes. Many agencies have pockets of program management excellence, but the real challenge is connecting the isolated pockets to improve program management of the Federal government overall.

I recently presented on government program and project management offices at the University of Maryland’s 2017 Project Management Symposium. I am researching the current state of the Federal agencies’ program and project management offices. My purpose is to determine the number and structure of Federal program and project management offices. My research will establish a baseline to measure the impact of PMIAA. There is much research on the benefits of project management offices in the private sector but few empirical studies on government project management offices. Two studies provide insights into how to implement PMIAA.

What Makes a Project Management Office Successful?

Dai and Wells conducted a study to determine which of the project management office services correlated most highly with project performance. The researchers studied these project management services:

  • Project support to offload administrative burdens such as reporting and software operations from project managers.
  • Consulting and mentoring, whereby professional PM expertise such as proposal development and project planning is provided.
  • Development and enforcement of standards and methods to leverage best practices and to ensure members of the organization are all ‘‘speaking the same PM language.’’
  • Training to enhance individual skills and to encourage professional certification.
  • Assisting in staffing projects with project managers.
  • Playing a high-tech project support role by enabling virtual project offices across geographical and organizational distance.

Of all the services offered by the project management office, two services were found to have a high correlation with project management success. The first is the establishment of project management standards and methods. Project management offices that create manage and maintain organization wide standards, tools and practices have the most impact on the organization’s project successes. The second service is the knowledge management function. Project management organizations that keep and disseminate lessons learned also increases the organization’s project successes. These two services are closely related as the lessons learned help refine the project management organization’s set of standards and practices.

Can Private Sector Best Practices Be Successfully Transferred to Government Project Management Offices?

The previous study offers a path for creating an effective project management office in government. However, how well do private sector project management practices translate into the public sector? Shah, Khan, and Khalil studied that very question when they conducted a case study of Pakistan’s Electronic Government Directorate. According to their research, ten significant differences specific to the government makes it difficult to transplant private sector best practices:

  1. Monopolistic in nature;
  2. Lack of adequate and appropriate skills within the public sector;
  3. Larger number of stakeholders, often with conflicting interests;
  4. Elaborate bureaucratic processes of projects approval, funds release, reporting and monitoring
  5. Larger, and more complex, projects;
  6. Sometimes ambiguous goals, or goals not properly linked with organizational (i.e. national development) goals;
  7. Extensive external dependencies and influences, i.e. from politicians, citizens, external funding agencies, etc.;
  8. Diluted personal responsibilities and accountability, sometimes drive by the attitude of ‘passing the buck;’
  9. Shorter planning and financial horizons (or perspectives); and,
  10. Subject to laws, regulations and oversight that exceed those of private organizations.

Because of these differences, the researchers advise that government agencies pay close attention to training the agency workforce in program and project management, establishing organization wide standards and practices, and investigating delays and problems. Then, when adopting a best practice, rethink how the best practice will operate in the government environment. The agency should carefully monitor the progress of the best practice and use a robust lessons learned process to refine the best practice continually.

The Profound Potential Impact of PMIAA

PMIAA may have just as much impact (if not more) on the Federal government’s ability to deliver services. Reforming government has been a consistent aim of many presidential administrations with mixed results. Part of the problem with reforming government is that attempting to transplant best practices without considering the special environment of government reduces the usefulness of the best practices. PMIAA is different because reforms are already established in the agencies’ pockets of excellence. PMIAA’s contribution is to help build program and project management capacity among the Federal workforce, create government wide standards and establish a government wide council to spread best practices. As the research shows, these are the correct steps to creating high performance program and project management offices.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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