PMIAA: Fix the fundamentals first

Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute.

The two latest entries on the U.S. Government Accountability Office's 2015 High-Risk List call attention to flaws in the management of Veterans Affairs healthcare programs and shortcomings in federal IT acquisition processes. Topping off an alarmingly long shopping list of potential problem areas, these points graphically illustrate the urgent need for improvements in federal programs.

But where to start? With the basics: setting government-wide program management standards is the first twist of the tourniquet that will stop the bleeding of wasted money and resources. PMI's research shows that organizations that invest in program management as a foundation of the organization's culture can improve outcomes, accountability and efficiency (see: How project management can create a more efficient government.)

The newly introduced "Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015" (PMIAA) is a significant step. For as diverse and complex as the federal government is, the utilization of sound program management is the kind of widely applicable tool it needs to address some lingering and fundamental challenges. If enacted, the PMIAA will make significant improvements to program and project management policy in the U.S. government.

Conceived by Reps. Todd Young , R-Ind., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., the initiative will put the kind of leadership and accountability in place that will drive change and improvement in the discipline of project and program delivery. It does so by relying on a proven management framework that can be adapted across the U.S. government.

Flexibility and adaptability are the key aspects of the legislation because the proposed changes fit what's largely already in place— but not necessarily aligned or given proper focus:

  1. Creates a formal job series and career path for program managers already in the federal government but difficult to find.
  2. Develops a standards-based model for program management consistent throughout the federal government.
  3. Recognizes the value of executive sponsorship and engagement by designating a senior executive in each agency to be responsible for program management policy and strategy.
  4. Breaks down silos and encourages collaboration through an interagency council on program management.

PMI has extensive research and case studiesfrom the profession on leading practices that the U.S. government can adopt and implement to bolster federal program management practices. This case study shows how the Social Security Administration improved its outcomes – and served as a modelfor improvements in program management. The Office of Management and Budget, E-GovOfficeand even some federal agencieshave already identified some of the legislation's pillars as solutions to their challenges. The mission now is to piece these standalone solutions and guidance together into a comprehensive foundation, framework and strategy to drive consistent and successful project and program delivery results.

The value in this approach is that it ensures there is a clear and accountable individual who can drive the change needed. PMI's 2015 Pulse of the Profession®indicates that engaged executive sponsors, active communities of practice and formally identified project managers are fundamental building blocks to achieving high levels of performance. By adopting program management standards, organizations increase collaboration, improve decision making and reduce risk. This is complementary to the recently enacted FITARA, as those same empowered CIOs can play a role in applying PM maturity and experience across their respective agencies. PMIAA also dovetails with the focus of Congressman Thornberry's acquisition reform efforts by equipping the government with the means to effectively blend skilled disciplines and leading practices into a sound acquisition program management framework.

PMIAA addresses these fundamentals first by taking stock of the talent already onboard in government and mandating the development of a strategy to develop and recognize that talent. It will support the desire of younger workers who increasingly value skills portability and new challenges, and answer the call for innovative hiring practices to bring in new government talent by finally taking a credible inventory of the talent already available.

In addition, this legislation will adopt portfolio review mechanisms so the executive branch can more systematically address the GAO High-Risk List. It enables OMB—as an executive sponsor—to pull the string on high-risk programs and implement fundamentals as outlined in the standards for project, program, and portfolio management. Doing so on a regular basis should allow agencies to identify and address project/program issues before they become congressional or media headlines. It will also help to proactively provide a status check on whether a "progressing" or "regressing" report will be given (and why) before the next Congress produces a new list.

PMIAA legislation will build a management foundation upon which the OMB can build a sound government-wide project and program management culture. Given the fact that it doesn't cost a thing except broadening many initiatives already in place, it's a win-win initiative.

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