Introducing Innovation

The New York City Housing Authority implemented a rigorous and disciplined project management approach to guide IT projects.

by / February 3, 2004
Avi Duvdevani played a pivotal role in New York City's technology history. He was a member of the team that created the city's first technology agency, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and served as the agency's acting commissioner. He helped establish the city's first telecommunications network, CityNet, and the city's presence on the Internet with an award-winning Web site. Duvdevani also spent weeks in the trenches working to restore the city's IT services following the Sept. 11 attacks.

As a 30-year veteran of public-sector IT management, Duvdevani certainly saw his share of public-sector IT challenges, but he was about to see the biggest when he became CIO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) -- the largest real estate management organization in the United States.

NYCHA controls 12 percent of the rental apartments in New York City, which affects 8 percent of the city's population. The authority serves more than 174,000 families and 418,000 authorized residents, and has more than 15,000 employees.

NYCHA hasn't undergone reform since the mid-1990s, but when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, it decided to launch a major reorganization and leverage its technology projects in that process. When Duvdevani became CIO in April 2003, it was up to him to ensure technology projects implemented by NYCHA were done so successfully.

"When I came to NYCHA, there seemed to be no real rhyme or reason to how technology was acquired, or what the drivers for such acquisitions might be," Duvdevani said. "When this organization decided to create a CIO position, it was an ideal opportunity to put in some processes and fill a void in IT governance."

NYCHA also was in the midst of an enormous ERP deployment. Duvdevani needed to infuse discipline into the authority's IT policy decisions quickly and effectively.

"Poor project management leads to project failure," he said. "A standard discipline would provide the resources and tools to improve the success of IT projects, and protect the enterprise's investment."

The Roadmap
Duvdevani's solution was creating an Enterprise IT Project Management Office (IT PMO) responsible for designing and implementing a project management discipline for all enterprisewide IT initiatives within NYCHA. The goal was to better manage authority IT projects, distribute project ownership and justification, establish a collaborative IT project management environment, leverage and share practices, and introduce innovation and change.

Duvdevani hired Helene Heller as senior director of project and information management. Heller and Duvdevani, who worked together on the city's e-government programs under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are developing a roadmap for each "business," or division, within NYCHA to follow. This roadmap includes product delivery and project management processes, standards, best practices, and tools they hoped would enable NYCHA to raise performance levels and deliver positive financial impact.

"It's very important we make the right budget decisions considering the fiscal climate government is in today," said Heller. "When it comes to IT, there are a lot of competing priorities. We needed a process to help the decision-makers determine where to make the best use of IT dollars."

The project management roadmap will also include a suite of technology tools rooted in a set of templates that must be filled out by those undertaking IT projects. The templates guide project managers in identifying business needs, addressing governance responsibilities, building a business case to justify IT projects, and ensuring commitments are met and online collaboration tools are implemented effectively. The templates also help project managers identify metrics to track progress on a "management scorecard."

Key among these, Duvdevani said, is addressing governance responsibilities. The IT PMO requires the business owner, or initiator, of any new IT project to take a major role in managing the project. It also requires that person's executive -- their boss or the division head, which may or may not be the same person -- to sponsor the project.

"When Helene joined us and we started developing the approach, it took on a much broader perspective, and the whole idea of bringing the business owner in as the partner in an IT initiative began to take hold," Duvdevani said. "We are willing and prepared to flow the appropriate level of IT support into these projects. But we expect a business owner to step up and commit to a project and the resources to manage it. If they don't, the project most likely won't get funded. That aspect is pretty unique to our approach."

Heller agreed that business owner involvement is a valuable component to project planning. "Rather than technology taking the lead on a technology project or a professional project manager being responsible, this assumes the business understands the important role of technology, and that the technology department is their partner," she said. "Since it's all about improving the business process, it should be driven by the business."

Starting from Scratch
From the beginning, Heller looked at project management differently than a typical organization. While most government agencies don't consider project management until a project has been approved and passed off to a project manager, Heller said they start the process much earlier. "We can't assume that agencies will have a professional project manager. These days, it's much more likely they won't."

Instead, Heller began by examining the General Manager's Operations Committee, which decides whether IT projects are approved. "We asked a lot of questions about how they function," said Heller. "What is their role? How are decisions brought to them regarding what the enterprise IT portfolio project should look like?"

Then Heller looked at NYCHA's overall business strategy and each department's strategies. She also spent time with each key business decision-maker to identify impediments to carrying out the organization's mission.

"Based on that dialogue, a pattern started to emerge," said Heller. "If you marry that pattern to a reasonable set of criteria and business assumptions that executives should make, then you have a basis to put together a list of recommended initiatives. So that's how we started the process."

NYCHA's project management methodology includes the concept of a virtual management team, which runs on the assumption that no single person can be an expert in every project area. Instead, a team of subject matter experts works with the enterprise IT PMO to accomplish IT objectives.

"Even if you're following a scripted template and someone defines how to develop a metric, you might not have experience doing that," said Heller. "Someone else in the organization may be very good at that, so they become a subject matter expert in helping develop a metric. Similarly there's a need to understand what your current business process is and what the opportunity is to improve it. The project manager may not understand how to do that as well as someone else in the organization."

A Phased Approach
Next, Heller developed a project life cycle with distinct phases: initiation, planning, execution, close out and support/maintenance. Each phase has a clear entry and exit requirement to ensure the project stays on track as it progresses.

The project life cycle at NYCHA begins at the initiation phase, which a project enters after gaining executive sponsorship from the business unit. The initiation phase is where a project receives a "go" or "no-go."

"The initiation phase sets out a business case that makes the ROI up front -- that makes certain recommendations as to the solution; what the alternatives, inherent risks [and] assumptions are; how possibly to procure it; what resources will be involved internally and externally, etc.," said Heller.

The Operations Committee must approve the project for it to move to the planning phase, which identifies project requirements, such as potential technologies and resource/cost requirements, and sets the stage for the remainder of the project, which continues through the remaining phases until complete -- assuming it meets each phase's strict entry and exit criteria.

Heller also added an overarching phase to the process they call "evaluation and enhancement," which stresses change management and continuing improvement. "It needs to start at the very beginning," said Heller. "And it needs to be done throughout the project."

Part of the project monitoring will be done via NYCHA's intranet, with what Heller calls a project management dashboard, which will give NYCHA executives quick, real-time project information to determine how a project is progressing, and whether or not it's on budget and schedule.

"People can hide behind project plans that aren't fully visible, and commitments to due dates that can be fudged," said Duvdevani. "But the project management dashboard puts information out in plain sight to tell us and everyone else whether a project is succeeding or failing."

Lowering the Barriers
While still too early to judge its success, Heller and Duvdevani hope the new IT PMO will help lower barriers for direct business involvement in IT at NYCHA. They also expect the new processes to increase their credibility with the budget department.

"The budget department isn't expected to understand technology," Heller said. "If you spell your projects out holistically, you gain more credibility with them because you've helped them be more comfortable in understanding what you're requesting and why. That's critical with the biggest IT project and the smallest."

Mark McDonald, research director at Gartner, recently examined NYCHA's IT PMO as part of a research project. "One of the traditional problems that exists in the relationship between IT and business is that the business doesn't understand or appreciate what IT projects do and why they do things the way they do them," McDonald said. "Avi and Helene are building an environment that will expose the business to some of that complexity and some of those requirements in a measured way, so they can get done the projects they want to get done. Considering the number and types of projects that NYCHA has to do, and just their pure size, it's a very interesting and novel approach."

Despite praise for his efforts, Duvdevani doesn't see his solution as exceptionally unique. For him, it's a new process to guide IT project implementation and support him in his role as NYCHA's first executive-level CIO.

"At the end of the day, in the truest sense of the word, the CIO exists to ensure that the business strategy of the organization is carried out in a way that technology can be supportive," he said. "The IT PMO will be key in allowing me to carry out that role."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer