Training the Next Generation of Federal Government Program and Project Managers

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In a recent Government Executive column, John Kamensky writes about the second anniversary of the passage of the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (PMIAA). “Two years after its passage, slow but steady progress is being made to implement not only the law’s requirements but also its underlying intent—to improve the government’s ability to manage large and complex programs,” Kamensky writes:

The Office of Management and Budget has a five-year plan to implement the PMIAA. The first phase of the five-year plan was to create governance networks in the 24 major federal agencies. The second phase is conducted portfolio reviews for major acquisition programs. However, it is the third phase that most interest me – building the leadership and technical capacity to manage complex programs.

“OMB is working with the Office of Personnel Management to define the strategic talent management needs of agencies and the training needed by the current workforce. They are also working on defining potential job series, career paths, and mentoring programs, with an initial focus on acquisition staffs. OPM has announced that it will be conducting assessments next year of program and project managers across federal agencies to determine the competencies of the management workforce. According to Federal Times, this will be done in a phased approach across four groups of agencies beginning in May 2019.”

I agree with Kamensky’s reasons on why implementing the PMIAA is more difficult than originally thought. The first and second reasons revolve around defining what a government program is and how to manage a government program. The first two reasons probably lead to the third reason which is that many program managers do not see themselves as program managers. “They see themselves in the context of their professional communities (e.g., social worker) or their career’s policy domain (e.g., managing foster care).”

I especially agree with this point.

“Furthermore, program management has traditionally been treated as an acquisition function, when in fact it is much broader role, involving human resources, IT, financial management, mission-delivery functions, potentially other agencies, contractors, the media, and even Congress.”

It is the third phase that will be the real challenge. The first reason is that program management and project management, although closely related, have enough significant differences that only training for program management will not address the shortage of trained project managers. The second reason is there are 15 types of government programs with wildly different characteristics and purposes (pp. 7 to 8 of A Framework for Improving Federal Program Management, 2018). Each type of program will require a different variety of management techniques along with a common set of project management skills.

“Even the most inclusive list of discrete skills struggles to cap­ture the complex, imaginative, and dynamic experience of leading a federal program. Successful leaders require discrete skills, and the capacity to deploy those skills skillfully and strategically, to meet changing circumstances. Program managers themselves have a wide range of views about the skills that they need, given the demands of their programs.” (p. 40 of the Framework).

There are promising initiatives in meeting the project management and program management training challenge as PMIAA enters the next three years of implementation. Individual agencies are working hard to meet the training challenges as Kamensky recounts in his article. I will be looking forward to seeing what will happen in the next three years of PMIAA’s implementation.