Project Management Institute

Class dismissed-- now how do we execute? A strategy for improving individual accountability and organizational performance

Richard Garrison, Vice Chancellor, VA Acquisition Academy, Department of Veterans Affairs

Call to “Action”

For executives ovearguably the most difficult economic period in the past 30 years – is to ensure the investment in training and development are considered relevant by their peers who are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the business. While this is true for private sector and public sector organizations, state and federal human capital officers have the greatest sense of urgency as their leadership grapples with the budgetary dilemmas imposed by the mounting U.S national debt – US$14.5 trillion ( (source:

Government Accountability

While Congress and the Obama Administration focus on strategies to modify fiscal policies, federal programs (e.g., education, energy, homeland security, etc.) and entitlement programs (e.g., social security, healthcare, etc.), most Americans simply want a smarter government – a more accountable government.

President Obama, responding to this call for increased government accountability, suggested during his 2011 State of the Union address that a reorganization of government agencies to reduce cost was a possible consideration. However, Paul Posner, Director, Public Administration Program, George Mason University, stated that reaping cost savings from agency consolidations is generally a “mirage.” “Reorganizations are often undertaken with the rationale of saving costs. Ultimately, combining formerly separate (federal) programs and bureaus may do just that. But it is equally, if not more likely, that reorganizations will cost more – certainly in the near term.” (Posner, P., [Summer, 2011]. Reorganization is a Metaphor for Government Reform. Public Manager. p.33). Posner continues to say, “With 20rseeing human capital development, the most daunting task – within -20 hindsight, we know that reorganization is a daunting venture that presidents, cabinet secretaries and members of Congress should enter with caution.”

Donald Kettl, Dean of the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, stated that, “in creating programs and agencies or abolishing them, there’s not a whole lot of stomach for getting into the weeds on how to make them better…” (Clark, C.S. [2011, April] Flatting Government. Government Executive, p. 21).

Furthermore, Kettl suggested that, in most cases, overhauling government occurs as a natural knee-jerk response to a national disaster. As an example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2003 after the country came under attack on 11 September 2001. The Department of Interior (DOI), after the Gulf Oil Spill, reorganized its Mineral Management Service in 2010.

Posner also stated that, “Reorganization guarantees no managerial or programmatic benefits. The management of DHS has made the ‘high-risk list,’ published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), of those areas most vulnerable to fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. GAO found that the agency has yet to congeal as an integrated department, and it ranks near the bottom in surveys of federal employee satisfaction.” (Posner, P. 2011. p 34)

While this debt crisis hasn’t been characterized yet as a “national disaster,” it is receiving equivalent attention by the national and international media, as most political experts recognize the criticality of getting into the weeds to fix it.

Getting into the Weeds

In March, 2011, GAO reported its most recent update of its annual simulations of the federal government’s fiscal outlook (GAO-11-318SP, 2011). The report underscored the need to address the long-term sustainability of the federal government’s fiscal policies. GAO officials reported that there is “widespread agreement on the need to look not only at the near term but also at steps that begin to change the long-term fiscal path as soon as possible without slowing the (economic) recovery.” (US Government Accountability Office. 2011. p. 1)

The report identified “(1)federal programs or functional areas where unnecessary duplication, overlap, or fragmentation exists, the actions needed to address such conditions, and the potential financial and other benefits of doing so, and (2) highlight other opportunities for potential cost savings or enhanced revenues.” (US Government Accountability Office. 2011. p. 1)

The report cited over 30 areas in which there were overlapping objectives, duplicative programs, or common services being provided to the same population. The report also highlighted where government missions were shared across multiple agencies or programs; this is what the President suggested was important to address, because these missions spanned all the major agencies: agriculture, defense, energy, healthcare, homeland security, and other social services.

Improving the Performance of Government

Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could save billions of dollars each year and help federal agencies improve their overall efficiency. Additionally, creating performance and management efficiencies within these same federal agencies is taking center stage. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) was released on 16 March 2011 (H.R.2142).

In the bill, Congress calls for government-wide improvement in agency performance. “The Federal Government will establish performance goals to define the level of performance to be achieved during the year in which the plan is submitted and the next fiscal year for each of the Federal Government priority goals.” (United States Congress. 2011. p 4)

The bill will seek better data on those activities “contributing to each Federal Government performance goal during the fiscal year.” Furthermore, it will “establish common Federal Government performance indicators with quarterly targets to be used in measuring or assessing overall progress toward each Federal Government performance goal.” For program and project management professionals, they must assist their agency leadership in identifying major management challenges that are agency wide, or government wide, and determine appropriate approaches to address such challenges.

On the topic of GPRAMA, Kettl states, “(GPRAMA) requires agencies to designate senior officials to serve as chief operating officers (COO) and performance improvement officers (PIO) responsible for finding cost savings through elimination of redundant programs, all in hope of moving the government from merely collecting and reporting data to implementing data-driven performance management.” (Clark, C.S. 2011. p 21)

Improving Program/Project Management Performance


On 25 April 2007, Paul Denett, former Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), released a memorandum establishing a framework for program/project management professionals. Otherwise known as federal acquisition professionals, federal program/project managers oversee billions of dollars in acquisitions annually and within the current climate, these professionals can no longer rely on instinct alone. In an environment where transparency is king, acquisition professionals must make data-driven decisions to avoid waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars.

In the memorandum, Mr. Denett stated that, “Well-trained and experienced program and project managers are critical to the acquisition process and the successful accomplishment of mission goals. A strong partnership between program and project managers and contracting professionals requires a common understanding of how to meet the government’s needs through acquisitions that deliver quality goods and services in an effective and efficient manner.This memorandum establishes a structured development program for program and project managers that will improve this partnership and our collective stewardship of taxpayer dollars.” (Office of Federal Procurement Policy. 2007. p 1)

This memorandum established the Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers (FAC-P/PM), which reflects these recommendations and applies to all executive agencies, except those subject to the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA). The certification shall be accepted by, at minimum, all civilian agencies as evidence that an employee meets the core training and experience requirements.”

The FAC-P/PM certification focuses on four key domains:

  1. Program Management
  2. Acquisition Management
  3. Business Management (including Cost Estimation, Federal Budgeting, and Earned Value Management)
  4. Leadership Principles and Interpersonal Skills

Federal Acquisition Professionals

Agency leaders, when identifying those individuals who are responsible for improving agency performance, should strongly enforce and mandate the OMB designed FAC-P/PM certification.

Acquisition professionals are in the center of the storm because they are accountable for leading their agency leadership in reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, and poor performing programs. As a result, their direct involvement could save millions, if not billions, of dollars each year. Not only will this effort directly improve their overall efficiency as a program team, but it will also begin to improve the credibility of their agency.

At a minimum, agency leaders should identify those professionals that pose the greatest risk, or return, of program performance. This community includes:

  1. Individuals with significant involvement in one or more phases of the acquisition investment process (initiation, conceptualization/design, development, implementation, modification, maintenance, evaluation, disposal);
  2. Managers with authority and responsibility for overseeing multiple phases of the acquisition investment process;
  3. Individuals with responsibility for leading cross-agency or acquisition investment programs for a major portion or all of the investment life cycle;
  4. Individuals responsible for leading, coordinating, managing integrated project teams for acquisition investments; and
  5. Individuals participating on an integrated project team or a phase of the investment life cycle with aspirations for career development as a program or project manager.

In the widely read report by TechAmerica – Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century, Volume 1 (GTO-21) – a consortium of experts collaborated on several contributing factors that emphasize the urgency to improve federal program/project management –

  1. “Some major projects have had such problems with cost, schedule or performance that they have been cancelled without ever being deployed”
  2. “The complexity of the processes to be supported, volume of data, number of users, connections to other systems and security and privacy concerns can all pose significant technical and management challenges”
  3. “Program management not treated as a key discipline”
  4. “Understaffing of critical management skills”
  5. “Insufficient cross-domain knowledge”
  6. “Focus on Technology; not results”

As a result of their analysis, the report cites several recommendations for producing near-term improvements in major programs and acquisitions. The single most important recommendation stated is to “Develop a Professional Program Management Capability.”

The GTO-21 report states that, “Every major acquisition should start with the full-time assignment of a single, knowledgeable and authoritative program manager who sees the project through to completion. The program manager’s top priority should be aligning the acquisition’s IT strategy with mission/business requirements. To increase the pool of individuals qualified to step into this role, the Government should, among other steps, make program management a formal career track and, with support from industry, establish a Program Management Leadership Academy.” (Gooden, L., Kelman, S. 2010. p 2) While several other recommendations exist, the theme of the report is improving performance.

Establishing Accountability in Training

There are several sources that routinely report the state of training – the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD), Project Management Institute (PMI), International Data Corporation (IDC), and Bersin & Associates. Regardless of the source, most published training reports are illustrating a downward trend – training staff have been downsized; budgets remain under scrutiny; more reliance on mentoring/coaching, vs. standard instructor led training, all as cost-savings measures.

Why is it that during these arduous economic times most training budgets remain in a downward spiral? If President Obama has a say in the matter, it’s all about performance.

In 2010, President Obama declared in the 2010 Budget submission that, “…the Federal Government needs to make greater investments in its existing workforce, helping workers build skills and gain expertise to meet new challenges. Agencies need to increase and improve their training efforts, and implement plans to measure the effectiveness of their training investments.” (Office of Management & Budget. 2009. p 10)

Donald Kirkpatrick, in 1959, first published his infamous U.S. Training & Development Journal. The journal evolved into a more widely read book – Evaluating Training Programs – that documented four training measurement levels –

  1. Student Reaction
  2. Increase in Knowledge
  3. Capability Improvement
  4. Results

While easily achievable metrics on Level 1 and Level 2 have dominated the training industry for decades, training executives, and the President of the United States, are both paying more attention to organizational improvements (Level 3) and their subsequent results (Level 4).

Federal training professionals responsible for developing their federal acquisition management workforce are increasingly being held accountable to achieving these higher standards of evaluation – documented behavioral improvements and process improvements, and finally, how these collective improvements have improved overall agency performance.

Training professionals, to meet these expectations, need enormous support from agency executives in the forms of policy enhancements, performance plan modifications, and stakeholder buy-in of a performance management model that supports more data-driven decision-making and data-driven reporting.

This transformation to “implement plans to measure the effectiveness of training investments” can be more easily accomplished by implementing a performance management model that formally tracks individual, programmatic and organizational improvements – reducing program cost or improving programmatic/agency performance. GTO-21 (Gooden, L., Kelman, S. 2010. p 1-3) highlighted some possible areas of focus:

  • Improving mission or business process results
  • Fixing troubled projects faster
  • Enhancing compliance and transparency
  • Launching systems into the field faster
  • Mitigating poor requirements and resource constraints
  • Creating cost savings/avoidance with program efficiencies that reduce waste

However, as Paul Posner stated, and several others before him, there is no magic bullet. Poor performing program managers can still be ineffective within the most highly efficient organization. A sound performance management training model, with supportive agency leadership, can more efficiently identify these potentially misplaced professionals, while also providing leverage and opportunity to those professionals that are thriving.

Department of Veterans Affairs – Case Study

Secretary Eric Shinseki, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is committed to the President’s vision of transforming VA into a 21st-century organization that is a Veteran-centric, results-oriented, and forward-looking organization. Secretary Shinseki has a visionary deputy, and Navy veteran, who also embraces this transformation, and recognizes that it requires a multi-faceted strategy.

Scott Gould, Deputy Secretary, VA, stated in May, 2009, that, “Organizational transformation requires change in culture, systems, and training. This will require resources, but it will also demand commitment and teamwork. The entire Department is dedicated to serving the needs of Veterans, and every VA employee has a stake in transformation to meet those needs.” (VA, 2009, ¶4)

This shared vision for transforming the VA has guided the VA Acquisition Academy (VAAA) and Learning Tree International to deliver a training program that has an explicit focus on improving individual accountability, program performance, and organizational maturity.

Class Dismissed…Now How Do We Execute?


In his book, The People Factor (Bilmes & Gould [2009, p. 5] Brookings Institution Press), Scott Gould suggests that “the country cannot prosper without a strong, highly functioning federal work force to manage the government.”

The authors call for “an investment of US$10 billion to improve recruiting, training and management of the federal workforce predicting that investment will yield US$300-US$600 billion in productivity gains.” (p. 173)bThe book provides insights into Deputy Secretary Gould’s vision for investing in the civil service to improving the performance of government, so that government can better serve the nation.

While the easiest approach to measuring training effectiveness is to track Level 1 evaluations and training certifications, today’s performance-minded federal executives, like Scott Gould, concern themselves with more strategic outcomes.

Leading Change

While the major challenges of federal government’s national debt trump what impact a training organization can make to the debt itself, the leadership at Learning Tree International and the VAAA didn’t allow this to impede their vision. Both parties intuitively recognized a “Call to Action” to do their part in contributing to the transformation that is underway at the VA.

After a competitive solicitation, VAAA awarded Learning Tree International a multi-year IDIQ contract to provide a training program that was designed around a common vision for advancing the maturity and improving the results of the VA acquisition workforce. Richard Garrison, Vice Chancellor, VAAA, is responsible for improving program management disciplines across the VA as part of the charter at the PM School. His performance management training model has become so sought after by civilian agencies, that other government agencies have requested acquisition training delivered by the VA PM School.

Learning Tree International developed the FAC-P/PM curriculum with a team consisting of learning professionals, Brian Green, Federal Sector Manager, Performance Solutions, Learning Tree International, and an eight-member Federal Executive Board (former senior officials of the federal government). They were guided by the competencies as outlined within the OFPP policy memorandum, and set their sights on a similar performance management model – the Action Plan – tailored after the change management model documented in the book Leading Change.

Develop Performance-minded Professionals

The mutual strategy shared by the leadership at Learning Tree International and VAAA was to implement a training program that encouraged accountability, fostered a mindset of performance, and provided data-driven reporting that highlighted the organizational performance improvements that were implemented as part of this training program. While most training participants are accustomed to a test at the end of class to validate knowledge learned, the Action Plan was designed to complement Kirkpatrick’s Level 3 and Level 4 evaluation by utilizing Kotter’s organizational strategy for implementing change.

Every VA participant identifies a performance gap within his or her existing program/project, and then documents a business case for change. After having acquired the knowledge, lessons learned, and best practices of the Learning Tree FAC-P/PM curriculum, VA acquisition professionals identify those techniques, processes, and behavioral attributes that, when planned and implemented effectively, can dramatically improve, or completely mitigate, the stated performance gap.

ersonal Develop Action Plan

Currently used by nearly 3,000 training participants (about 10,000 Action Plans in total) the personal development Action Plan identifies several critical data points for establishing accountability:

  • Participant information
  • Program title
  • Budget
  • Stakeholders

Each participant then identifies the business case and process for implementing the performance improvement as part of his or her Action Plan:

  • Performance gap
  • Improvement action to address the gap
  • Alignment with agency goals
  • Benefits of the improvement action
  • Exposure to the agency if the gap isn’t addressed
  • Barriers to overcome
  • Stakeholders required to implement
  • Implementation tasks to achieve the improvement action

The Action Plan is not a “magic bullet”; it is, however, a performance management vehicle that is actively, and very successfully, capturing the performance improvements of dedicated professionals at the VA, and other government agencies, as they strive to improve formal systems and processes that will mitigate in the future the performance gaps of the past.

Training Top 125

This may seem daunting—even impossible—to some federal training executives, but it has already been accomplished by several private sector companies,. and the success has resulted in these companies being documented and recognized by Training Magazine in its 2011 Training's Top 125 list. Some of the organizations highlighted in Training's Top 125 demonstrated the importance of placing accountability upon its training leaders to improve business performance. These organizations recognize that beneath the surface of any organization are formal systems and processes that drive the expected behavior of its staff. As these formal systems and processes are identified, implemented, and enhanced over time, a culture of accountability will begin to emerge that will drive improved organizational performance.

In every example, the case studies from those organizations demonstrated this clear vision for improving organizational performance through demonstrable outcomes benefiting their customers, their employees, or their profits.

Performance Improvement at VA

One notable performance improvement that this performance management model is credited with was published in VAnguard – a VA publication – in the January/February, 2011 edition. A participant of the FAC-P/PM program is working on a complex capital asset management project that has been impacted by several major challenges over the years. The project has involved the transfer of real property and involved federal and state agencies, as well as veteran stakeholder groups.

As an outcome of the FAC-P/PM training and Action Plan, the participant developed an integrated management plan (IMP) and a cost/budget plan using earned value management. “We’ve made a significant turnaround with these improvements,” he said. “As a result, the IMP was developed and implemented, and delayed tasks have been put back on track with active engagement by all key stakeholders.” (VA. 2011. p 21)

“We are pleased to report that this US$200 million Base Realignment and Closure property acquisition and US$200 million major construction project has been put back on track, and we have received external stakeholder buy-in. The take-away from the FACP/PM training certainly contributed to our success.” (VA. 2011. p 21)

Graduates have also reported that they are paying closer attention to risk and mitigation strategies, acquisition planning, and have a better understanding of how work breakdown structures and earned value management contribute to the success of a project or program.

A Call to “Action”

When class is dismissed, and the certifications have all been handed out, how much of the knowledge is retained? Secretary Shinseki has a mission to create and maintain an effective, integrated, Department-wide management capability to make data-driven decisions, allocate resources, and manage results. This is a time for training, but more importantly, a time for Action.

This performance management initiative that currently blankets the VA, and other government agencies, is not new, nor is it the flavour of the day. As John Kotter offers in Leading Change, now is the time to share this performance management vision, empower broad-based action, generate more short-term wins, consolidate the gains and produce substantial change, while we anchor these new approaches into our respective cultures so that these performance improvements can enable the future leaders of government to focus on better serving the nation more efficiently, and cost effectively.


Bilmes, L. & Gould, W.S. (2009) People Factor: Strengthening America by investing in public service. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Clark, C.S. (2011, April) Flatting Government. Government Executive 43(6) 21.

Gooden, L., Kelman, S. (2010, October). TechAmerica Foundation. Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century, Volume 1. Retrieved from

Kirkpatrick, D.L. & Kirkpatrick, J.D. (2006). Evaluating Training Programs: the four levels. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Kotter, J.P. (1996) Leading Change. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press

Posner, P., (2011, Summer). Reorganization is a Metaphor for Government Reform. Public Manager 40(2) 33.

United States Congress. (2011, March 16). (H.R.2142) – The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA). Retrieved from

United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2011, January/February) Training the Next Generation of Acquisition Professionals. Vanguard55(1) 20-22.

United States Department of Veterans Affairs (2009) President Obama’s 2010 Spending Plan Initiates Transformation for VA Services. Retrieved on 07 May, 2009 from

United States Government Accountability Office. (2011, March). GAO-11-318SP – Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue. Retrieved from

United States Office of Federal Procurement Policy. (2007,April 25). The Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers. Retrieved from

United States Office of Management & Budget. (2009, February) Analytical Perspectives – Budget of the US Government. Retrieved from

US National Debt Clock. Retrieved September 09, 2011, from

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©2011 Learning Tree International™
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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