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Program Management Improvement Accountability Act – Now What?
January 7, 2017 at 5:00 AM
Minimalist boardroom

At the end of 2016 the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act (PMIAA) was passed into law (Public Law No: 114-264).  Its purpose is to improve the program management practice in government agencies.  The law establishes as additional functions of the Deputy Director for Management of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requirements to:

  • adopt and oversee implementation of government-wide standards, policies, and guidelines for program and project management for executive agencies;
  • chair the Program Management Policy Council (established by this Act);
  • establish standards and policies for executive agencies consistent with widely accepted standards for program and project management planning and delivery;
  • engage with the private sector to identify best practices in program and project management that would improve federal program and project management;
  • conduct portfolio reviews to address programs identified as high risk by the Government Accountability Office (GAO);
  • conduct portfolio reviews of agency programs at least annually to assess the quality and effectiveness of program management; and
  • establish a five-year strategic plan for program and project management.

However the Department of Defense (DOD) is exempt from such provisions to the extent that they are substantially similar to: (1) federal provisions governing the defense acquisition workforce; or (2) policy, guidance, or instruction of DOD related to program management.

Why Is This Important? 

For me this law raises several important questions. Does the government lack good program managers?  Are agencies missing a critical capability to ensure program success? Do government PMs have the knowledge and tools to manage their programs?  So many questions come to mind as to why this law was put in place, and by reading its intent, it appears that by adding more policies, standards, and oversight, we are going to make PMs more effective.

We cannot afford the many program failures we have had due to cost and schedule overruns and/or technical inefficiencies.  However, in my opinion, by putting all the requirements of this law in place program management improvement will increase only marginally if at all.  Instead what it will do is what government always does to solve its problems  – establish a new set of rules and regulations and have people in oversight positions ensure that everyone follows them. In other words, the problem is not with PMs lack of policies or standards, it is with the government bureaucracy, culture, and environment. The program manager needs the training, knowledge, experience, authority and responsibility to see the program successfully through its acquisition stages.  The way our Federal agencies are managed today, this is a challenge.

There are numerous reasons for government program management failures even with the best managers in place. The most notable ones are predominantly in the Department of Defense.  But there are plenty of failures across government to prove that something needs to be done to improve government program management results.

From my perspective, it needs to start by changing the way PMs in each agency are selected, trained, and managed. More importantly, PMs could be more effective if the requirements and acquisition processes were more closely aligned.

In 2011, I was part of a study completed by the Defense Business Board (DBB) to identify best business practices that could improve the intake and development of uniformed PMs. But the study really applies beyond those in uniform and could be extended to all federal PMs.

For years, the federal government has attempted to reform and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its acquisition process (including Program Management).  Many PMs, senior officials, and others who were interviewed for the DBB study believe that PMs spend the majority of their time going from meeting to meeting and answering the same questions amongst the various offices. There are “checkers checking checkers” throughout the program management process, which is both inefficient and ineffective.

Most Federal agencies with large procurements face the same issue. In other words, PMs spend too much time managing the politics and the “process” rather than managing the business aspects. This creates problems in recruiting and maintaining experienced PMs. The new law appears to be putting on more processes which will further hinder the PMs from doing their job.  The only way to change this trend is to make an environmental and cultural change.  We need to give the Program Manager the freedom to do their job without the hindrance of politics and process.

What Needs To Be Done

  1. Selecting The Right Individuals

Key to ensuring effective program management is selecting the right individuals. By identifying the key traits necessary for effective program management work, the government can use that information to screen candidates.  Just because you fly F-22s does not necessarily make you a good F-22 Program Manager. For major acquisitions PMs need experience managing programs, bringing a real understanding and appreciation of what needs to be accomplished as a PM. In today’s environment, recruiting individuals with special skill sets (e.g., IT/Software/Cyber) is a priority. But this can only happen if government agencies build a culture and tradition that places program management as a career destination not just a stopping point.

  1. Training Is Critical

Understanding the practices, tools, and approaches to program management can be attained by attending PM development courses at universities, rotating across programs, or through mentorship. By being on an effective program management team, members will gain appreciation for the diversity of the job, and potential for growth. And through increased training time, PM team members will gain experience and situational awareness needed to manage.  Those with high-potential in the acquisition force could be given a tour in industry to gain business savvy on how industry does business.

  1. Giving Authority And Responsibility To Manage The Processes

What hurts the government program management field most is how they are managed, specifically, the PMs lack of authority and responsibility to make key acquisition decisions due to the bureaucracy and cultural traits found in government.

On the other hand, their industry counterparts have authority and responsibility because suppliers support a strong program management function with increased PM tenure, continuity and business acumen.  Industry PMs are typically in a line function and have career aspirations and planned destinations. Unfortunately not all PMs in government understand the business dynamics that drive suppliers and affect performance. With this additional acumen, they could be more productive and able to communicate with industry on a level playing field.

By aligning the requirements, resources, and acquisition processes more closely, PMs do not have competing goals.  The DBB study suggested that to accomplish this, it is necessary to make sure that those who are responsible for the requirements process and funding are also responsible for the acquisition process (i.e., the program manager). To accomplish this it is necessary to extend the capability/requirements process deeper into the acquisition process so that the cost and capabilities trades can be made earlier in the acquisition phase. This means redefining and expanding the PM role so that it is an effective integrator of requirements, resources, and acquisition. For example, the PM should be able to challenge the requirements that might be closely met by a reasonable cost/benefit trade off. Ultimately this will strengthen the program manager’s ability to challenge scope and requirement changes that increase schedule and cost.

What Will Work

The government spends almost $500B a year on acquisition.  Since the 1980s we have been trying to change the issues that drive poor program performance which lead to program failures.  Yet no matter what is done, we end up with the same results time after time. We do not need a law to make PMs more effective, we need the government’s bureaucracy to get out of the way of PMs who are looking to successfully meet the goals and intent of the programs they manage.  We need to build a culture and tradition in government for PMs who both do the right things and do things right without bureaucratic and political interference. Maybe this Act will help achieve that – maybe.