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A Community of Practice on Government Program and Project Management

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

By Bill Brantley
November 1, 2016

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to improve the federal government’s management of programs and projects. The U.S. Senate is expected to approve the House bill soon, and President Obama has expressed his eagerness to sign the final bill into law. The Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015 (PMIAA) will revolutionize the way that the federal government plans and executes program and project management in four ways:

1)     Establishing a formal job series for Federal program managers.

2)     Creating a governmentwide program management policy.

3)     Designating a senior executive in each Federal agency who will oversee that agency’s program management policy and strategy.

4)     Instituting an interagency council on program management.

What led to one of the few bipartisan-supported policies in this Congressional session? Some point to the recent failure of Healthcare.Gov while others argue that the 25-year history of the General Accountability Office’s High-Risk List consistently points to the need for better program management. Per a report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), an annual 1 percent increase in program efficiency will save nearly a trillion dollars in the next 10 years.

The Current State of Federal Project and Program Management


The Project Management Institute (PMI) sponsored the NAPA report to persuade the federal government to improve project management and program management. As PMI explains, programs are made up of many related projects. Improve the management of projects and program management will also improve. The NAPA report found five issues with federal government project management and program management.

First, there are no holistic laws and policies for program management. Laws and policies were passed to handle specific program management problems without an overall framework. Second, program management is not perceived as “essential to government performance, success and results” (quoting the NAPA report). Third, agency management is not aware of their roles and responsibilities concerning the proper management of programs and projects. Fourth, the training and development of program managers and project managers are inconsistent and inadequate. Fifth, and finally, there is no professional community of federal government project managers and program managers. A professional community can help federal project and program managers to mentor each other and advocate for professional development initiatives.

An Opportunity for the Public Administration Education Community

For the last three years, I have been a moderator for the federal government sessions at the University of Maryland’s Center for Project Management Excellence’s Project Management Symposium. I have recruited presenters and have managed an all-day track devoted to issues in Federal government project management. We have had a range of presentations from traditional project management techniques for government facilities to cutting-edge agile project management methods used by the U.S. Digital Service and the Presidential Innovation Fellows. There are pockets of innovative and effective project management offices that are doing some great work in delivering government services and improving agency processes.

Each year, the participants remark how they wish that they knew about the other projects and the work that other agencies are doing. Most participants are members of PMI and network through that organization, yet sometimes feel lost in the sheer size of PMI and the project management community at large. Also, the project management and program management environment in government has enough differences that some private sector practices do not apply.

For example, many government projects and programs suffer from inconsistent budgeting. The annual budgeting cycle limits the ability to forecast and plan programs that are multiyear in focus and execution. With the current environment of continuing resolutions on the federal government level, program managers and project managers are forced to keep the programs and projects in maintenance mode. This prevents using state-of-art program and project management methods such as agile project management. Thus, government program and project managers are eager to learn about the newest methods but need methods that can work in the unique environment of public administration.

Many public administration education schools teach program management and project management. However, in my observation, some of the schools do not incorporate lessons on the latest techniques and management methods such as human-centered design, lean startup and agile project management. Public administration schools are in a unique position to study the effectiveness of modern management methods in improving government program and project management. Another great resource that public administration schools have is their research. However, that research needs to be translated into actionable suggestions for government practitioners.

G-PPMI: Government Program/Project Management Institute

Maybe this is the time for the academic community and the practitioner community to come together in a new organization. A community of practice that connects the government program and project managers to share best practices and lesson learned. This community of practice will also serve as a way for public administration academics to find rich areas for future research projects while making their current research accessible to practitioners. Clearly, there is a need as evidenced by the NAPA report and, once the PMIAA is enacted, there will be an interagency council on program management. Perfect time for the government community to raise their voices.

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. He can be reached at http://billbrantley.com. 

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