I’ve taken notice in recent months of the impact project management is having in turning around some of the biggest challenges across the federal government.

High-profile federal government projects tend to follow the same life cycle. They are announced amid great optimism and ambitious goals, they drop off the radar for a while, then they are thrust back into the spotlight when the projects have ballooned past original deadlines and budgets and failed to realize the expected benefits. Granted, the government is wrestling with some extremely complex projects, . B​but this doesn’t remove the need to manage projects toward desired benefits.

In fact,​The more complex the project, the greater the need to practice benefits management. A great example most recently ​of achieving success and plotting a path towards​ delivering benefits as intended can be found in GAO’s assessment of NASA’s major projects, which is ​a rare account of an organization doing it right.

PMI’s recently released Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report on the Strategic Impact of Projects quantifies the value of identifying expected benefits at the beginning of a project. Organizations with high benefits realization maturity waste 67 percent less money than those with low maturity. That is $112 million less for every $1 billion invested in projects and programs.

Unfortunately, being highly competent at managing benefits does not happen very often — -- ​the study shows that a staggering 83 percent of organizations lack maturity with benefits realization. If government agencies want to materially impact achieving their strategic goals and reducing waste, it’s time to make benefits management a formal part of the project management approach.

A large contributor to this challenge for any organization, government included, is defining the benefits to be measured, which can range from tangible and trackable via spreadsheet, capabilities or services to be delivered, or even the softer and intangible concepts of utility, efficiency,​ and effectiveness. 

A useful example to draw from is a PMI FAA case study about a project to transform air traffic control, which found that the FAA relied on a solid project/program management foundation to streamline the creation and implementation of new air-safety technology. Despite being one of the largest public works projects in U.S. aviation history, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast program ADS-B program​ achieved all of the benefits on its list. The FAA knew early on the benefits that this new technology would bring to air traffic controllers and managed the project toward that strategic expectation.

Numerous federal government projects currently underway appear to be focused on cost and timeline at the risk of formal benefits management. For example, periodically the GAO reports on its own effectiveness and efficiency.

GAO audits an organization, looks at costs, verifies benefits and reports select positive results and also negative ones, depending on whether GAO’s recommendations were followed. Again, not all benefits can be tracked on a spreadsheet or expressed as dollars and cents. Soft benefits such as user experience are also critical, given the government’s major focus on increasing its digital presence to improve the way citizens experience the government.

The Department of Defense’s space program is another example. Fiscal challenges and increasing threats have caused DOD to look at alternatives for acquiring and launching space-based capabilities. One learning from past government projects is the importance of defining the benefits first and then creating a process to validate that those benefits have been achieved. For instance, NASA has a private-sector partnership with Boeing. Recently NASA announced that it anticipated using both Boeing Space Exploration and another firm, SpaceX, to provide a space taxi service to and from the space station in 2018. If NASA ends up being reliant on an external entity to put payloads and missions into space, will the benefits of that approach align with DOD strategy?

Federal food assistance is a different kind of high-spend area where an approach for benefits realization could make a big difference. According to another GAO report, domestic food assistance programs cost taxpayers over $100 billion in FY 2014. Food programs clearly benefit those who need them, but there are signs of inefficiencies and gaps among the 18 programs administered by various arms of the federal government.

More effective benefit realization monitoring would help avoid wasted spending and very likely simplify long-running programs that must adapt to ever changing regulations and end-user needs. As political factors inevitably span the spectrum with any social program, projectized approaches to deliver on strategic objectives via targeted benefits in programs such as this is more than management buzzwords – it amplified the impact made for Americans facing hunger. 

In my view, the commonality across defense, IT/tech, social programs, and experimental space exploration is the need for a focal shift in mindset for federal projects and programs. Looking at this across federal portfolios, coupled with leading research showing that 80 percent more projects meet or exceed forecasted ROI and 57 percent more meet goals and business intent when organizations deliberately identify and align project benefits with strategic goals, should make benefits management seem like an obvious step, but it is frequently overlooked.

Good intentions are not enough. In fact, the road to poorly managed projects is paved with them. Let’s start building bridges between agency intentions and strategy via benefits and then execute.

Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute. Previously he was an officer in the U.S. Navy.

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