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Improving Program Management in the Federal Government

Notwithstanding a few bright spots at the Defense Department (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), and NASA, “the federal government has been slow to embrace program management,” and “program management capabilities are generally weak,” across government, according to a new report that seeks to help the government better integrate the management discipline into its operations.

The report, “Improving Program Management in the Federal Government,” was released last week by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) at the request of the Project Management Institute (PMI).

The NAPA/PMI white paper was produced to highlight challenges and opportunities around use of program and project management disciplines during a time marked by “the proliferation of important transformational initiatives in the federal space, as well as the increasing challenges associated with uncertain budgetary resources, increasing workloads, and a rapidly changing 21st century operating environment.”

“By enhancing program management, agencies may increase the efficiency of federal programs and projects, and save taxpayer funds, as well as address the High-Risk List areas, many of which have been on the list for several years,” NAPA President and CEO Dan Blair states in the report preface.

Five key challenges to building effective program management capabilities across the government and seven conditions needed to support the development of program management were identified by NAPA.

The challenges identified by NAPA in the paper include:

  1. Laws and policies have been developed over time to address specific problems and do not holistically address the challenges of program management.
  2. Program management is not consistently recognized as a management discipline that is essential to government performance, success, and results.
  3. Agency executives and stakeholders do not clearly understand their roles and responsibilities.
  4. There is no consistency across the government in the training and development of program managers.
  5. Program managers lack a professional community within the federal government that can provide support and a voice on issues affecting the development of program management.

The conditions required to support the institutionalization of program management across the government include:

  1. An integrated approach to the development of government-wide program management policy and oversight of agency implementation.
  2. Agency leadership support for program management.
  3. Integration of program management into strategic planning, goal-setting, and performance improvement processes.
  4. Clearly established roles and responsibilities of agency executives and stakeholders in program management processes.
  5. A strong, senior-level program management organization in agencies.
  6. A government-wide job series for program managers that spans business functions with a career path that extends into senior career executive management ranks.
  7. An organization bringing together senior program management officials from across the government to advise on government-wide policy, share leading practices, and oversee the development of expert program management resources.

Legislation introduced in the House and Senate, the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015 (H.R. 2144; S. 1550) seeks to address the challenges and foster proper conditions by directing several actions contained in the report recommendations. The paper adds suggested refinements to the legislation.

While NAPA suggested that a more systematic approach, backed by the authority of law, could drive more rapid and consistent development of project and program management capabilities across government, that legislation in this area is not required and coordinated activities between Executive Branch agencies and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could achieve similar goals.

“The Panel believes that institutionalizing the discipline of program management across the federal government should be a top priority. There is no guarantee of success in large-scale, complex change initiatives. However, if program management is undertaken by well trained, experienced professionals within a supportive infrastructure, based upon proven standards and practices, we believe that success will be more consistently achieved,” the NAPA report concludes. 

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