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Training the Next Generation of Federal Government Program and Project Managers

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

By Bill Brantley
February 9, 2019



In a recent Government Executive column, John Kamensky writes about the second anniversary of the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (PMIAA) getting passed. “Two years after its passage, slow but steady progress is being made to implement not only the law’s requirements, but also its underlying intent—to improve the government’s ability to manage large and complex programs,” Kamensky writes.

The Office of Management and Budget has a five-year plan to implement the PMIAA. The first phase of the five-year plan was to create governance networks in the 24 major federal agencies. The second phase is conducting portfolio reviews for major acquisition programs. However, it is the third phase that most interest me: building the leadership and technical capacity to manage complex programs.

Formalizing the Program/Project Manager Role in Government

Kamensky writes:

“OMB is working with the Office of Personnel Management to define the strategic talent management needs of agencies and the training needed by the current workforce. They are also working on defining potential job series, career paths, and mentoring programs, with an initial focus on acquisition staffs. OPM has announced that it will be conducting assessments next year of program and project managers across federal agencies to determine the competencies of the management workforce. According to Federal Times, this will be done in a phased approach across four groups of agencies beginning in May 2019.”

I agree with Kamensky’s reasons on why implementing the PMIAA is more difficult than initially thought. The first and second reasons revolve around defining what a government program is and how to manage a government program. The first two reasons probably lead to the third reason, which is that many program managers do not see themselves as program managers. Kamensky says, “They see themselves in the context of their professional communities (e.g., social worker) or their career’s policy domain (e.g., managing foster care).”

I especially agree with this point:

“Furthermore, program management has traditionally been treated as an acquisition function, when in fact it is a much broader role, involving human resources, IT, financial management, mission-delivery functions, potentially other agencies, contractors, the media and even Congress.”

Program and Project Management are Similar but the Differences are Significant

The third phase will be the real challenge. First of all, this is because program management and project management, although closely related, have enough significant differences. Training for program management will not address the shortage of trained project managers. Secondly, there are 15 types of government programs with wildly different characteristics and purposes, as described on page 7 and 8 of A Framework for Improving Federal Program Management. Each type of program will require a diverse variety of management techniques along with a standard set of project management skills.

“Even the most inclusive list of discrete skills struggles to capture the complex, imaginative, and dynamic experience of leading a federal program. Successful leaders require discrete skills, and the capacity to deploy those skills skillfully and strategically, to meet changing circumstances. Program managers themselves have a wide range of views about the skills that they need, given the demands of their programs,” Page 40 of the Frameworktells us.

Benefits Realization Management as a Vital Skill

One set of skills that can be universally applied to all government programs and projects is benefits realization management. The purpose of benefits realization management is to determine how the program or project will deliver the benefits promised. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI)’s 2016 report, Strengthening Benefits Awareness in the C-Suite, “Only 61 percent of projects key to putting strategy in place yielded the intended strategic benefits.”

Benefits realization management has been adopted by the United Kingdom in managing its government projects. The Office of Government Commerce first published a benefits realization management standard in 2007 with the latest revision being released in 2017. In the United States, benefits realization management has not caught on in the federal government.  However, it is slowly being adopted in the private sector. PMI published a standard in 2016 and has a web site devoted to benefits realization management resources.

There are two advantages to incorporating benefits realization management training. Firstly, by communicating the expected benefits of the program or project up front, there will be more agency support and, possibly, public support for the program or project. Secondly, program and project managers can replace return-on-investment (ROI) measures with the superior actual-return-on-investment (AROI). Instead of focusing on whether the program or project was delivered on time, on budget and within scope, the program or project is measured based off of the benefits achieved.

As PMIAA enters the next three years of implementation, there are promising initiatives aimed to meet the project management and program management training challenge. Individual agencies are working hard to meet the training challenges, as Kamensky recounts in his article. Training will only benefit the government by increasing the success rates of government projects. I look forward to seeing what will happen in the next three years of PMIAA’s implementation.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at 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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