Project Management Institute

Caltran's quest for true project management in government bureaucracy



by Ross A. Chittenden

MANY GOVERNMENT AGENCIES, including the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), have successfully delivered high-quality projects for decades; therefore, management of projects has always been a part of the corporate culture. So, at many of these agencies, the concept of project management is viewed as business-as-usual: each project has an identified project manager and sophisticated project management software is applied to track project progress, and that's all there is to implementing project management, right? Wrong! Nothing could be further from the truth. Project management implementation requires an overhaul of the corporate culture to reorient the organization from functional allegiance toward project management.

In the late 1980s, increased competition, outsourcing, nontraditional project funding sources and increased customer participation led many governmental agencies to adopt project management as a method to reduce costs, improve on-time delivery and meet or exceed customer expectation. The 1990's management trends of total quality management, reengineering, government rightsizing and devolution compete to keep project management implementation struggling for acceptance by the very people employed to perform project work. Without careful organizational planning, cultivation of project managers and project staff, and proper priority in the corporate agenda, project management will likely never get the foothold required to succeed.

Any large government agency serious about implementing project management should consider the following minimum steps, based on information gathered from the often-painful lessons learned in six years of effort at Caltrans. These steps can help jump-start agencies in the infancy of their project management implementation efforts.

Create a Project Office and Set Corporate Expectations of Its Role. In a large, bureaucratic, functionally aligned organization, no single action is as important as creating a Project Office. The Project office defines and institutionalizes project management processes and maintains and improves them once implemented. The Project Office is the project management process owner; it uses continuous improvement, benchmarking and other techniques to instill industry best practices into project activities.

The Project Office should be established at the executive level of the corporate office and at all district or regional offices, and should include the manager of project managers, the capital projects' program manager(s), the engineering contracting officer, project managers and project administration and support staff. During establishment of the office, an organizational expectation must be set; specifically project management implementation and operation is the responsibility of the organization at large, facilitated by the Project Office but not performed solely by the Project Office. Education and training is required for all levels of staff and management, and the project management process must be designed so that all work units understand their roles and responsibilities on projects. One backlash against creation of the Project Office may be functional departments dedicating extra resources and effort on non-project activities at the expense of projects.

Caltrans created project offices at the corporate level (Project Management Program) and at each district office (Program/Project Management Division). The District Division Chief for Program/Project Management (so-called Single Focal Point—SFP) at each district office receives allocation for all project support resources, 40 percent to 60 percent of total allocated resources. The SFP uses negotiated work agreements between project managers and functional organizations to distribute project support resources based on total available funding and project priorities. The SFP has a position in the organization equal to or greater than all district functional division chiefs to maintain appropriate emphasis on project management.

Cultivate Project Managers, Don't Designate Them. Common organizational errors include adding project management responsibilities to line-functional manager's duties (two-hat project managers) or redesignating the best engineers or functional managers as project managers. While either of these approaches can work for simple, low-cost projects, a long-term sustained project management approach requires the cultivation of project managers with the knowledge and skills to manage and control projects.

Most government organizations are downsizing and have limited ability to recruit experienced project managers into their organization. Project leaders should select individuals from within the agency who are most qualified as project managers, not necessarily the best engineers. Too often, technical ability is considered more important than soft skills like team building, communication, negotiation and conflict resolution. If technical abilities and soft skills are united in a single individual, that person is a project manager candidate; otherwise, technical managers should stay technical managers.

Seek Outside Help. Any organization can benefit from a neutral perspective from outside the existing corporate culture. For organizations that must rely on existing staff to implement and perform project management, the existing corporate culture and organizational policies may tolerate little change unless a fresh perspective is present. The uses of external support to help direct critical startup activities can overcome these limitations. The options include peer reviews or similar benchmarking activities, professional organizations such as PMI, and project management consultants.

Many government agencies can use existing partnerships with engineering consultants, construction firms, or other best-of-class government agencies to initiate peer reviews, often at little or no cost. Numerous organizations now include benchmarking as a major component of continuous improvement efforts, and welcome opportunities to participate in peer reviews or be a benchmarking site. Caltrans has benefited from two separate peer review efforts conducted by other government agencies and engineering consultants. Both of these peer review efforts were at a minimum cost to Caltrans.

Join and use the resources of PMI. Too many organizations feel they must reinvent the wheel or employ industry-specific or organization-specific jargon and practices to gain internal support and buy-in. Examining the PMBOK Guide with an open mind will provide the basic framework for any project management implementation effort and can shave years off the implementation schedule. PMI-sponsored training is an effective, low-cost means to introduce new project managers to project management concepts.

Qualified project management consultants are abundant (see the March 1997 PM Network listing of consultants and trainers). Organizations that have the money and support from top management should consider using consultants to rapidly implement project management processes and project information systems. Without top-management support, these efforts may be a high-cost exercise in futility. In these organizations, Project Office leaders should use peer review efforts, PMI and education to instill project management principles from the bottom up while focusing education on the benefits of project management toward top management.

Develop a Work Breakdown Structure. Caltrans' most significant contribution to project management has been the development of a comprehensive, uniform WBS, a tool that could potentially be used by highway agencies throughout the United States, because each is subject to the same federal laws. It also may be of interest to agencies in other countries, but to a lesser extent, because they have different laws.

A multifunctional team of project managers, functional managers and functional staff should participate in the development of the WBS. Many consultants are available to lead or facilitate this effort.

While some view a uniform WBS as a limitation on project manager creativity, the benefits in a large organization easily outweigh this criticism, particularly in organizations in the early stages of implementing project management. The WBS becomes a pick-list for new and inexperienced project managers in the selection of activities required to deliver their project. Project templates can be developed and stored for planning efforts on similar projects. Communication is improved among project managers and functional staff as common work is described by common activities. Estimating standards and practices are more easily established as project actuals are recorded in a project database with common planning standards. Organizations that develop many similar projects can reap these benefits and more from a uniform WBS. (The Caltrans WBS will soon be available on the Caltrans home page at

The minimum commitment: to deliver 90 percent of projects on time and accelerate other projects to capture 100 percent of programmed funds. Since the inception of project management, Caltrans has consistently met these targets, while simultaneously responding to the challenges of frequent earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.

Create Decisive Project Management Forums. The early phases of project management implementation result in many individuals being placed in positions for which they have no formal training or relevant experience. This is true for the Project Office manager, project managers and project support staff. Forums allow these individuals to discuss ideas and approaches for project management, share successes as well as horror stories, and demystify project management. Organizations with districts or regions can pool resources to share implementation workload and avoid duplicate or conflicting initiatives.

Project management forums should have the power and authority to make decisions and implement them in the organization, or have an executive sponsor who can do so. The individuals involved in the forums should be the change agents who possess the project management knowledge base and interpersonal skills required to transform the entire organizational culture. Without decisive leadership and the authority to direct change, the forums will lapse into gripe sessions, rather than activities that promote the growth and effectiveness of project management.

Select Project Management Software: Don't Let it Select You. Many organizations believe that the use of project management software is, in and of itself, project management. These organizations will likely develop a list of “must do” requirements for project management software and hold a series of software demonstrations with multiple vendors. Since the organization has no formal project management process, the “must do” functions are very basic schedule and cost control functions generally available in software packages. The ultimate decision is then based upon which vendor gives the best demonstration, or whose product best fits into the organization's information technology infrastructure.

After initially employing this approach, Caltrans recognized the need to consider a more balanced approach to implementing project management. The new approach is organized around people, process and tools.

Organizational structure and policy development should precede project management software evaluations. The identification of this balanced approach to project management allows the organization to develop detailed functional and data requirements for project management software. Project management software should operate on an open database to allow seamless integration of human resource management, time collection, contract management and financial data. Most government organizations store this and other general project data in mainframe legacy systems, which may not be redeveloped during project management integration. The project management software should be flexible and adaptable to both organizational policies and existing information systems. Vendor demonstrations and hands-on proof of concept pilots, which use your organization's approach to project management, are excellent opportunities to select a project management software package that meets the specific organizational needs.

Involve Top Management. For all organizations, this is the most important aspect of project management implementation; for many, it is the Achilles heel. If support is lacking, project leaders should market the benefits of project management to top management and secure support before widespread project management implementation activities begin. The fundamental changes to the organization's behavior and culture depend on the full support and participation of top management.

In predominately functional organizations, project management will be perceived as a loss of power and influence for functional managers. The change to a matrix or projectized organization may create conflicts in reporting relationships and project priorities. Top management support must remain constant to overcome these obstacles and keep the naysayers at bay. In extreme situations, individuals in critical positions who do not support project management implementation may need to be reassigned or dismissed. Top managers should demonstrate support, patience and persistence toward project management implementation activities.

One example of top management involvement at Caltrans is the use of the chief engineer and the deputy director for finance as the approval authorities for project cost, schedule and scope changes that exceed a defined threshold. Video-conferencing technology allows project managers to meet with these top executives to explain the causes and seek approval for changes. The project managers, not district executives, are required to discuss project issues and provide information on actions taken to control these changes. The participation and support of top management is a key factor in driving the organization to meet minimum commitments to deliver 90 percent of projects on time and accelerate other projects to capture 100 percent of programmed funds. Since the inception of project management, Caltrans has consistently met these targets as well as responded to the challenges of frequent earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.

CALTRANS HAS EMPLOYED some form of all these techniques in using project management to improve service to the taxpayers of California. The result has been successful control over project cost, schedule and quality. While we are pleased with our progress, we have also fallen victim to errors and pitfalls, and of course we've had to adjust our original implementation plans. But top management support and persistence has allowed progress to continue despite inevitable difficulties.

Current efforts are focused on improved human resource management, risk management and information systems. A cyclical project management process to control planned schedules and budgets, actual costs and progress, while maintaining quality is replacing the former “it costs what it costs and takes what it takes” mentality under which projects worked their way through the system with a life of their own. As with many organizations, we continue to strive for an integrated information system that meets the needs of multiple levels of staff and management within the organization.

The quest is not finished; however, the lessons of the past have allowed us to keep the implementation effort forward-looking, a perspective required to meet the demands on government to deliver more and higher-quality services at lower costs. img


Ross Chittenden is the chief of the Office of Project Management Systems Implementation at Caltrans' corporate offices in Sacramento, Calif. He has over 13 years of project management and construction experience at Caltrans.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network · April 1997



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