The Ascendancy of the Project Manager


by / November 6, 2000


Ask most people what they remember about the Millennium Bug, and theyll tell you what didnt happen: computers didnt crash, cash machines didnt shut down, utility systems didnt go off line and general technological Armageddon didnt occur. But ask a government chief information officer, and he or she will tell you what did happen: deadlines were met, benchmarks were set and results were measured.

In other words, Y2K was the ultimate job for project management. By and large, every governmental entity found out they could do the job right through careful planning, scheduling and testing. "Clearly, Y2K confirmed that project management makes a difference," said George Boersma, Michigan CIO. "Y2K helped state agencies realize how much they needed a disciplined approach to managing IT projects."

With proof in hand, a growing number of government IT departments have begun to set up internal project management offices to offer expert advice to agencies undertaking IT projects and to train other IT and business managers in the art and science of project management. For some CIOs, improving their governments dismal success rate with IT projects is reason enough to invest in project management programs.

For others, training their staff to become project managers instead of programmers is a response to changes in the IT industry and government. "Aside from Web projects, were doing more coordination and less programming," explained Gail Roper, director of the Kansas City Information Technology Department. "We are purchasing more canned software and developing fewer custom applications. When you take that approach, you are looking more at data gathering and customer needs -- things that require coordination and project management."

Highlighting this trend is the growing role of electronic government, which is putting customer-centric services on the Internet. These browser-based solutions are predicated on enterprise-wide, multi-agency applications, which require a high degree of project management expertise in order to get off the ground and succeed. Industry forecasts predict that a majority of government services will be electronic, Web-based offerings, making project management a skill of paramount importance in the years ahead.

No More Half-Baked Ideas

For years, project failure seemed a fact of life for most information technology departments in government: too many custom-coded applications for systems managed by IT professionals who had little grounding in the skills of project and risk management. IT research firms annually rolled out surveys that showed that an average of six out of 10 IT projects were completed over budget, behind schedule or failed altogether.

But with Y2K, IT departments faced the stark reality of an IT project that could not fall behind schedule or fail. Suddenly, project management skills, methodologies and tools took on a priority never seen before in government IT projects. Cities, counties and states got serious about managing risk, metrics, benchmarks and results. For once, the world of "half-baked ideas," as project management expert Kopal Gapur calls them, went out the window, replaced by disciplined Y2K teams who inventoried every hardware and software asset, set schedules that had to be met and measured results to ensure success.

Governments, for the first time, had information about the technology they owned. They also had documentation about existing applications, risk assessments for the most vulnerable applications and new lines of communication with agencies that had previously ignored the central IT department. The most disciplined IT departments set up internal Y2K offices, which became the seeds for project management offices after January.

"We started our Y2K office two years ago," recalled Carder Hunt, CIO of Scottsdale, Ariz. "About halfway through that project, we began informal talks about turning it into a project management office." Those discussions led to the creation of a project management office under the direction of Gordon Cresswell. Today, the city has five project management consultants handling a list of 35 existing and planned IT projects, ranging from a simple social service application to an enormous, citywide utility billing system.

In Kansas City, project management training is under way for assistant directors, business analysts, programming leaders and internal business consultants. In all, 24 city workers are being trained for certification by the Project Management Institute (PMI), according to Roper. When certified, they will be tackling a broad array of projects, ranging from enterprise resource planning systems and PC lifecycle programs to electronic government initiatives, CAD systems and GIS. "All of our project leaders will have the core competencies to manage and assist with large-scale projects," Roper pointed out.

Training at Michigans Project Management Office is under the direction of the Project Management Research Institute, which has set up a chapter in Lansing to train public-sector employees. Graduates receive certification upon completion of the courses. But the goal is not only to give the students additional knowledge about project management. "Were looking at this from a career perspective," said Boersma. "They may have to complete a number of projects along with certification. One thing we dont want is someone taking on a major project who has never done project management before."

Such a requirement is a break from the past, when IT managers were often given major projects to manage, not because of their management skills, but because they happened to be familiar with the technology being used. "A lot of times, projects fail because there isnt the right expertise to manage a project," explained Boersma. "While we have a lot of subject-matter experts, we dont have a lot of project management experts."

California is another state that is working actively to bring project management skills and methodologies into the field of information technology. The states Department of Information Technology (DOIT) is working with the University of California at Davis to certify government managers. DOIT is also working with the local chapter of PMI to sponsor monthly meetings for information sharing. The department is developing a project management performance metrics process to track best practices, according to Vince Montane, a spokesman for DOIT.

State and local governments are also stepping up their use of project management tools. For example, Kansas City and Scottsdale use Microsofts Project Manager software. Michigan has standardized on the ABT Results Management Suite for statewide planning, analyzing, scheduling and tracking. Many other private- and public-sector organizations are also turning to Internet-based tools.

Setup Is Tough

For most state and local governments, its too early to tell just how successful these in-house programs will be. Many are just beginning to train and certify workers. Results, which are a crucial aspect of project management, arent available in terms of internal project management programs. Nor are these offices easy to set up. They are expensive and the training takes time. "Its too early to tell what all this is going to do, because we are just in the process of beginning to coordinate and implement project management methodologies and tools in the state," explained Boersma.

The upfront work of establishing a project management office can be tough, added Boersma, because it requires imposing a disciplined methodology on project preplanning, planning, design and development. Another challenge is persuading agencies and departments that hiring a seasoned project manager is necessary. Some departments havent tackled large-scale IT projects yet and dont see the need. Others believe they can do it on their own.

That leads to another problem: giving the in-house project managers the necessary understanding about the business needs of the different agencies. "We have to take a business-oriented approach to these projects," said Roper. "These are new initiatives representing a monumental change in government."

Part of that change is the shift toward enterprise-wide applications -- the so-called e-government initiatives sweeping state and local government. As e-government grows, so will the need for program managers, not just project managers. Its the next biggest trend in project management, according to Joel Koppelman, chief information officer of Primavera Systems, a project management software developer.

Already, large state agencies, such as CalTrans in California and the Port Authority for New York and New Jersey, are handling extremely large projects. Some of the work is construction, but there is also a major amount of IT involved. These large-scale projects consist of complex funding arrangements, said Koppelman. "Contractors manage the projects, while the government manages the funding, tracking allocations from multiple sources across numerous projects."

Managing the Future

Multi-tentacle programs are beginning to appear in IT projects, with the initial rollouts of e-government systems in New York, Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Ohio and elsewhere. Numerous agencies are having to work with others to create government-wide programs that affect certain life events, such as health care, finding a job, moving and so on. The program management requirements for these kinds of initiatives will be staggering compared to whats been required in the past.

Will state and local governments be ready this time as they were for Y2K? Theres a growing consensus that government has a better appreciation for project management. But something more fundamental is needed to succeed, said Hunt. "You have to remember to take on those projects that add value," he said. "Give the customer choices, keep it simple and get it done. Otherwise, you end up with a bureaucratic process that does little."

Tod Newcombe Features Editor