New Project Management Strategies Reduce Troubled Government IT Deployments

Training programs and innovative approaches seek to boost project success.

by / September 15, 2008

Vivek Kundra sadly remembers an IT project the District of Columbia Public Schools conducted several years ago. The goal was to implement the PeopleSoft enterprise resource planning system. The project failed probably due to poor management, said Kundra, who joined the district as its chief technology officer in May 2007. "There was $25 million flushed down the toilet," he said.

Kundra used that story to illustrate why governments need to follow sound management principles for their IT projects. Increasingly governments use formal project management methodologies to ensure IT projects move forward as planned - on time, on budget and with proper attention to business needs.

"There isn't anything we do from an IT standpoint that doesn't require project management," said Teri Takai, CIO of California. That's true not only when the state implements new software applications. "Project management is just as important for upgrading the infrastructure, making sure that even studies we're doing are well managed," she said.

One level up from project management, governments also are paying attention to how they manage IT initiative portfolios. "A portfolio management function should be keeping a 30,000-foot view of the status of projects," said Mike Locatis, CIO of Colorado. That includes watching for troubled projects and setting priorities for projects across the state government, he said.

"Enterprise becomes more important with portfolio management versus project management," said Davood Ghods, agency information officer of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Together they provide a structured and repeatable approach for conducting projects, supporting organizational goals and missions, aligning IT with business needs and getting a return on the IT investment, he said.

Some governments have formed special offices to coordinate enterprisewide IT initiatives to set priorities, allocate resources and avert redundant efforts. Others have established programs to boost project management skills. For example, Washington, D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) runs a boot camp to help its project management teams.

California is hiring and training project managers and teaching project management skills to all IT professionals. "It's not just training a group of individuals and calling them project managers," Takai said. "It's really training all your folks to understand how important project management is and the basic project management techniques." Future training will also focus on helping business managers understand the importance of planning in IT projects, she said.

Minnesota's Planning and Portfolio Management Division, part of the state's Office of Enterprise Technology, created a project management academy as a resource for department-level IT project managers. The academy offers templates, models, tools and other resources.

"We've also created a combination of classroom and online development activities for beginning and experienced project managers," said John Lally, the division's director. These are based on educational materials developed by the Project Management Institute, an association for project management professionals. Unfortunately recent budget cuts have kept the division from marketing or updating this resource, he said.

Such programs aim to cultivate basic management proficiencies, like organization, planning and budgeting. They also try to promote softer skills, such as communications, team building and anticipating roadblocks.

"The skill sets, obviously, that are required are great communication skills, amazing ability to organize, the ability to convene people [and] the ability to spot problems before they explode," Kundra said.

"Clearly people skills are very high on the list," said Takai. "It has to be someone who can express issues very well, in a noncontentious way - someone who is skilled at collaboration and how you draw people together."

A project manager must be able to communicate with upper management and project team members. "They also, to a certain extent, need to be a public information officer because there are so many constituents who are interested and have a vested interest in the success

of these projects," said Locatis. Those constituents include elected officials and end-users.

Along with educational initiatives, government IT officials have developed numerous strategies to promote strong project and portfolio management.

Leave Well Enough Alone
In Minnesota, one basic tenet of the portfolio management philosophy is one size doesn't fit all. Some departments are expert at managing their IT projects, said Lally. His office tends to leave them alone. Other departments don't conduct IT projects often enough to develop strong skills or their track records point to a need for supervision. "We have a stronger working relationship with them," he said.

If a project led by a strong team starts to go astray, members probably will notice early and report the problem, Lally said. Other teams need more careful monitoring. "A lot of projects get into trouble, and they don't realize that they're in as deep a trouble because their heads are down working on it, trying very hard to make it successful," he said.

Minnesota's Planning and Portfolio Management Division sets project management standards and ensures department adherence. But it doesn't dictate methodologies or project management tools. "We're trying to act as facilitators, rather than as directors of the process," Lally said.

Along with training resources, the state has several IT project management interest groups, some coordinated via the division and others through individual state agencies. These provide forums where project managers can trade tools and techniques and help one another with specific problems, Lally said.

In the District of Columbia, OCTO borrowed a project management technique from a whole different discipline: financial investment. Kundra organized the district's IT projects into five clusters: economic development, education, public safety, health care and government operations. Each cluster is assigned a manager to monitor projects as though they were stocks in a financial portfolio. "And then we rate those stocks," Kundra said. "Do you buy, sell or hold?"

Using a financial analysis system and enterprise project management software, portfolio managers track their projects daily, keeping tabs on spending and progress against milestones. In regular briefings, they describe how the "stocks" in their clusters are performing. The OCTO also frequently surveys the customers for whom it's developing projects. "Instead of a PE [price to earnings] index, we have a happiness index, to see how happy the customers are," Kundra said.

The scrutiny's aim is to let market forces determine which projects merit further support, which need more time to prove their worth and which should be killed before they waste more money. "You're able to spot negative and positive trends much faster," Kundra said. Based on the metrics, OCTO can take cash away from ineffective project teams and give it to star achievers. "Everyone knows how the game is played, which is based purely on performance. If you don't perform, there are consequences."

To ensure IT projects align with business needs, an IT investment board, composed of business leaders from relevant departments, oversees each cluster. "So it's the business that's really driving and saying these investments make sense or these investments don't make sense," Kundra said. "It's not the technology folks making these decisions in a vacuum."

Governance Committees
Although it hasn't adopted the stock market model, Colorado's Office of Information Technology also has organized the people who oversee the state's IT projects into clusters. Called Executive Governance Committees (EGCs), these clusters represent departments with similar interests. The EGCs are: agriculture and natural resources; education; finance; health care and human services; personnel and labor; public safety; and transportation.

Each month, the business and IT leaders who constitute each EGC meet to discuss project statuses, exchange ideas and provide guidance. "We're able to share the strengths of knowledge across multiple departments and share the risk

of managing these projects," Locatis said.

For example, the public safety EGC is working on a major system called a message switch, which first responders will use to find out whether a person, place or vehicle has ever been involved in a crime. The EGC's broad perspective helps keep this project on track.

"Instead of just having the eyes of the Department of Public Safety, we've also got very experienced people from Corrections, Military, Veterans Affairs and Local Affairs weighing in," Locatis said. Together they have solved several scope and contract issues. "Before, every department would just kind of go it alone, even if they had weaknesses in contracts or procurement," he said.

Colorado is so devoted to the idea of cross-functional collaboration that it set up an office dedicated to managing one major IT project. IT staff, business stakeholders and vendor representatives configuring a new tax system for the Department of Revenue will work there full time until the project is done.

Previously stakeholders gave a set of requirements to a vendor team or IT staff who then went away to develop the software. When they came back, inevitably the product missed the mark, Locatis said. This isn't so when everyone works daily in the same office. "This way, they can have real-time, iterative, agile development of the configuration of the tax software, with the experts right there to do the acceptance," he said.

Washington, D.C., and Colorado governments aren't the only ones to decide that a broad perspective makes for good project and portfolio management. In California, Takai asked all state departments to develop five-year IT plans, covering implementation projects and infrastructure development. Many departments already create such plans internally. "But we've never had an effort to pull that together into a statewide plan," she said.

Rolling all the plans into a single document will give California a chance to consider new ways to prioritize IT projects, Takai said. That's important in a state where IT is decentralized, each department with its own technology organization and budget. "There's not a good mechanism to align and prioritize the way we're spending our dollars," she said.

Creating one IT project plan for the enterprise will also give legislators a better picture of the state's IT activities, Takai said. Historically California lawmakers have looked at IT one project and one annual budget cycle at a time. Given a holistic view, they can better understand the state's IT priorities when allocating funds, she said.

Besides developing a panoramic view of the state's IT projects, California plans to create a portfolio management office to monitor IT projects and report on their progress, Takai said.

Kitchen Cabinet
At the department level in California, the CDFA has taken the enterprise principle one step further by exchanging its decentralized IT structure for a central IT shop. The move came in response to an assessment the department conducted of its IT activities. The study showed the department was missing some important functions, including project and portfolio management. "Also, there were a lot of duplicate efforts," Ghods said.

An IT governance council, consisting of Ghods and the agency's program and division directors, oversees the new enterprisewide IT organization. To help direct its activities, the CDFA implemented Computer Associates' Clarity Project and Portfolio Management solution.

The council - dubbed "Davood's Kitchen Cabinet" - meets monthly to review current projects' status. "I can use my Project and Portfolio Management to bring up a dashboard that shows which projects are in green, which ones are in yellow, which ones are in red. Those that are in yellow or red are the projects that are not healthy," Ghods said.

The tool also lets the council examine costs for projects and project groups. The

council then can determine whether each project is providing a solid return on investment of time and money.

Initially the programs and divisions weren't happy to see their IT staff moved to a central organization, Ghods said. To ensure IT projects would continue to meet their needs, the CDFA assigned each division an account manager - an IT staff member who serves as a business-side liaison. "Any complaints, any initiatives for new projects, any kudos, could be communicated to these single points of contact from IT," he said. "If necessary, we would even house the IT liaison or account rep at their physical location at the division for a temporary period of time."

By creating a governance structure that supports better project and portfolio management and implementing tools to support that effort, the CDFA's IT organization can provide better service to its customers, Ghods said. "Aligning IT with the business [side] is the outcome of having project/portfolio management."


Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs