Project Management Institute

Integrating project management across government operations


The project management discipline has been steadily on the rise in the public sector for nearly 50 years. Originally sequestered deep within missile defense programs like the US Minuteman program, project management has evolved into a full-fledged tool across both civilian and military agencies around the globe. Today, project management is a discipline under strain in the public sector. Global economic conditions have led to massive cuts in all types of projects – from large construction to information technology to human services. In short, projects must deliver value in short order. In addition Training budgets are stagnant or cut completely in some struggling countries.

This paper will explore ways government agencies are using project management across layers of government in order to streamline and deliver services in tough economic times. Governments are tied together though funding streams, data sharing, regulations and statute, infrastructure and programs. Success in many governments depend upon the coordinated efforts of organizations external to the entity itself.

More and more, governments are integrating across local, state/provincial, and national jurisdictions in order to streamline services and eliminate redundancies. In the United States, the Federal government provides much funding to state and local governments for project related work. As Exhibit 1 shows, the populace receives a wide range of government programs. Today, when citizens have access to nearly as much information about programs as the people managing them, governments must work very hard to ensure that investments in programs are streamlined. The examples included in this paper highlight the increasingly cross-jurisdictional nature of projects in the public sector environment.

Aside from the value of completing a project on time and on budget, projects bring additional value to the public sector in three particular ways. First, projects act as levers of change in typically change-averse organizations. Second, the project management discipline increases the flexibility of the planning and execution processes. And third, projects foster innovation in government better than any other form of managing work. To ensure that stakeholders understand the value that project management brings to the organization, project sponsors, managers and team members need to demonstrate that value.

Range of Government Programs

Exhibit 1: Range of Government Programs

Let's look deeper at the three ways that public project management delivers value to its agency:

  1. Project Management as a Lever of Change. Governmental agencies must adapt to current economic conditions. Often this involves changing internal processes to gain efficiencies, which can be tremendously difficult in government organizations. Project management is synonymous with change, and public sector project teams need to recognize their role as change agents. As an example, one State Department of Transportation conducted a comprehensive organizational change initiative to transform their IT organization, services, and capabilities.
  2. Bringing Flexibility to Bureaucracy. Large governmental agencies around the world operate under immense bureaucratic mechanisms. Project management can provide methods for improving the speed and flexibility of planning and execution processes. Consider the Agile approach to software development. This iterative method is designed to result in limited documentation, but higher levels of team buy-in and awareness. One US federal agency is using the power of the free market to transform how they deliver financial management solutions to State agencies.
  3. Fostering Innovation. Governments are looking for new, less expensive ways to reach citizens and deliver services. Innovation occurs today in construction through going green and innovative designs, in IT through the use of spatial data and data warehouses, in healthcare through streamlined new protocols in delivery. One local government in the US is creating new networks of stakeholders though effective social networking and Web 2.0 deployments.

Let's take a closer look at each of these areas how governments are integrating through change, flexibility, and innovation.

PM as a Lever of Change

The disparity created by poor economic conditions and increased government funding is putting pressure on the project management discipline to deliver public sector value quickly.

Public sector project management is fraught with unique challenges, including:

  1. Bureaucratic environment. Many government agencies operate under extensive legal, regulatory, and policy constraints. These rules tend to create a culture that is resistant to change. Bureaucratic environments will often decrease the speed of change.
  2. Incremental thinking is the norm. Because many government entities operate in a steady state for years at a time, there is little incentive to consider any change but the most incremental of improvements. Incremental thinking decreases the depth of change.
  3. Projects increasingly operate across boundaries. Projects that depend upon cross-agency collaboration are on the rise, and often require advanced communication skills. This type of environment increases both the speed and depth of change required.

Project management offers a way to address these challenges by acting as a lever for change. Projects can cut through the morass of politics and shortsightedness by delivering on clear objectives and bringing change through multiple channels:

  • A proving ground for new strategies. When government organizations innovate or take a new path in solving a problem, project management enables an efficient, concise environment for change.
  • Beyond the incremental. Highly bureaucratic institutions usually change slowly and incrementally. Projects offer a way to make quantum leaps in understanding and approaches to problem solving.
  • Better stakeholder management. Cross-boundary projects require innovative ways to address stakeholder needs. A project environment enables systematic stakeholder management.

These powerful tools are commonplace in project management, yet they can be lost in the throng of normal, bureaucratic activity. To be effective, these levers of change need to be deployed aggressively and managed proactively.

Federal Government Example: Charged with developing a program and system to track dangerous materials from the point of manufacture to their disposal or exportation, this federal agency was successful in achieving a critical mass of stakeholders, end-users, and data to achieve success. The project challenges featured implementing a highly redundant and advanced technology while balancing security and accessibility for a user community that spanned industries and government entities in every state in the US. The agency applied their standard project management methodology with an emphasis on: 1) incrementally introducing the technology, and 2) gaining stakeholder support and acceptance. The project leadership established clear roles for participants and stakeholders at the outset of the effort and assessed the potential impact of “local” politics and “organizational” culture on the project. The result was strong communications and collaboration among the project team, stakeholders, and end-users and the implementation of the tracking system.

Bringing Flexibility to Bureaucracy

Many government organizations around the globe are moving toward formal project management practices. Formal methods offer not only a consistent approach to managing project work, but also enable governments to establish more efficient and flexible working environments. Highly bureaucratic public sector organizations often struggle with implementing changes to their environments. Factors that drive agility and flexibility out of organizations include:

  • Highly regulated environments. Complex legal and regulatory constraints drive organizations to adopt a “common minimum” approach. Only the most modest of changes are ever implemented.
  • Ingrained processes and tools. Governments lack the impetus to continuously innovate that drives many private sector companies.
  • Change-averse cultures. Given laws that are hard to change and insular processes, the people in many government organizations tend to be change-resistant.

The net result of these forces is often an organization that struggles to find flexible approaches to completing new work. That said, there are many instances of government organizations that do not operate according to the generalizations above. To be successful, governments must adopt project management as a way to bring flexibility to the organization.

Organizational Flexibility

Exhibit 2: Organizational Flexibility

Large bureaucracies often benefit from leveraging the entrepreneurial aspects of project management. Project management can act like a “small business-within-a-business” by enabling the suspension or minimization of many working assumptions inherent in typical bureaucratic processes. Clearly defined project boundaries enable teams to operate according to different – often more flexible – set of rules. For example, application development teams can adopt modified rules for migrating data and code between the development and test tiers of an app dev environment, thereby enabling them to quickly iterate in the development of functionality. In this approach, a project operates as a small business within the larger organization, allowing the team to move faster internally. To be truly flexible, project teams must imbue the project environment with key principles of flexibility:

Priorities over procedures

Projects must adapt to changing priorities on daily basis. Adopting a “priorities over procedures” approach allows the team to understand what is really important and address those elements as appropriate. Procedures cannot be ignored, but they must be adaptive to the needs of the project.

Outcomes over outputs

Projects drive change, and often the early understanding of specific work products quickly becomes inadequate. This circumstance creates tension, as a project team must reconcile the real requirements from their stated work product. To follow this tenet, the team must continuously reorient itself to the desired outcomes and develop roadmaps that link the work product and other outputs to the larger outcomes.

Process over personalities

Processes that engender evaluation and reflection often support flexibility. Processes help organizations stretch and balance the anchors associated with large personalities.

These principles should not imply ignoring procedures, outputs and personalities. These are important aspects to ensuring that work gets done, but there also needs to be recognition that project management offers highly bureaucratic organizations the benefits of flexibility.

Project managers and sponsors need to create the container of project management within their organizations. Here are three activities that will help:

Activities that Assist Project Managers

Exhibit 3: Activities that Assist Project Managers

Project management offers many benefits to a bureaucratic organization. The flexibility of a project provides a balance to the procedure-laden environments. By envisioning projects as small businesses, the organization can safely test new ways of operating without the cost of implementing widespread change.

State Government Example: The outbreak of “swine flu” in 2009 served as an unusual test bed for one state health agency's newly established PMO and project management methodology. The state launched a mass vaccination project to address the pandemic in a rapid and effective way. The project assembled the right people – members with specialties from vaccination to data management, led by people with a project management orientation. The project organization included multiple teams with clear roles and deliverables. To achieve the right focus, the project team effectively answered WIIFM – “What's In It For Me?” – from the perspective of each stakeholder group and established clear and realistic goals for the effort. A host of the right tools were deployed including the new PMO and project management methodology, a formal change control process, and an array of communication tools. The end result was successfully completing this critical and comprehensive project within six months of the pandemic declaration.

Fostering Innovation

All around the globe, governments are finding fundamentally new ways to integrate, deliver services, connect constituencies, and leverage shared investments. What does this innovation look like? Consider the U.S. government's recent employee incentive program, called SAVE, Securing Americans Value and Efficiency ( This program rewards government employees who deliver great ideas on ways to save money and improve efficiency. Some of the ideas have included:

  1. Allowing patients to take home, rather than dispose of, in-hospital medicine upon discharge;
  2. Delivering government employee pay stubs electronically;
  3. Making appointments to discuss Social Security benefits online; and
  4. Streamlining redundant inspections of subsidized housing.

Innovation goes way beyond money saving ideas, however. Governments are using the project format to help create innovative environments. Project management itself plays an important role in fostering innovation in government. Our profession enables fresh, new thinking and problem solving. Projects offer a way for innovative new ideas to be developed. And projects themselves can be an agent of cultural change that spurs new approaches to old problems. Yet enabling project teams to truly innovate requires the right mix of creativity, freedom from bureaucracy, accountability and vision. These ingredients do not come easily in the typical government environment. More often than not, government organizations squeeze projects into existing molds.

The following techniques will help government organizations use project management as a tool for fostering innovation.

  1. Be selective. Leverage governance processes to develop executive level consensus about the functions and technologies undergoing radical change. Use portfolio management, to ensure that those innovative initiatives happen in a “protected zone,” such as a specific portfolio, as needed. Maintaining this barrier helps limit risk to existing functions.
  2. Envision it. Use business cases and project scoping techniques to articulate a path toward the new innovation. Business cases often involve dreaming big dreams, and scoping converts the selected dream into a tangible focus.
  3. Get Your “A Team.” Consider the best and brightest minds on your team. It could be the new programmer or the agency director. Innovation often comes from unlikely people, so look for those people who can see past the day-to-day and articulate a new vision of tomorrow.
  4. Know the risk. Effective risk management supports sound decision-making. Imbue the schedule and budget with risk ratings to ensure a proper fit into the overall portfolio. Risk management processes may need to be enhanced for higher risk projects.
  5. Start Small, and Scale It. Take advantage of the project framework that enables pilots, limited rollouts and other mechanisms to try out an idea on a small scale before going big.

Innovation can result in quantum leaps in the way an organization operates. Project management acts as a tempering mechanism, allowing the investments in innovative new ideas to come to fruition following a rational process.

County Government Example: Driven by cross-jurisdictional issues, state and federal mandates, budget, cuts, and the demand for increased transparency, collaborative projects have become the rule, not the exception from the county government perspective. A project to establish a plan to install a fiber optics required creation of a regional network including 10 jurisdictions, multiple stakeholders (governments, schools, libraries, universities, hospitals, and private industry) highlighted these collaboration drivers. This project was a catalyst for a few innovations, specifically around communication. The project manager quickly determined that the volume, frequency, and variety of communication would consume all her time. The answer… she appointed a “Communications Czar” who designed and established a comprehensive communication plan and system, including the use of various social media platforms to share information and receive feedback. Tools like SharePoint were used to monitor and report on project deadlines. The communication plan included a “Comm Org Chart” with specific roles for key stakeholders, providing clarity in their roles that enabled the group to remain cohesive despite the rapid pace of the project and the wide variety of project participants. The success of these “innovations” has made the communication structure and tools a standard for future projects.


Project management is helping governments all around the globe. The discipline has woven itself into many different types of governments – representative democracies like the USA, one-party states like the Republic of China, and parliamentary monarchies like the United Kingdom. Countries as diverse as Australia, Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Egypt have all taken steps to use project management. From defense and capital construction, to information technology and human services, project management is quickly moving from the larger governmental entities, out into the provinces and small agencies.

Governments must integrate programs, funding streams, infrastructure and more to succeed. Integration of data and programs across levels of government is a critical success factor that cannot be ignored. While the very essence of government is to administer the bureaucratic programs that legislatures enact, it should necessarily follow that projects within the organization must be lashed down under the same cover of red tape. Governmental organizations should strive to find new ways to create the “white space” that projects require to drive change, promote flexibility, and foster innovation.


Note: This white paper contains excerpts from a three part series on PM in government delivered on PMI Community Post. Other sources are cited as appropriate.

Jaques, T. (December 4, 2009). Project Management: A Lever of Change in the Public Sector. Retrieved on June 18, 2010, from

Jaques, T. (March 12, 2010). Bringing Flexibility to Bureaucracy. Retrieved on June 18, 2010, from

Jaques, T. (April 9, 2010). Project Management: Fostering Innovation in Government. Retrieved on June 18, 2010, from

Weinstein, J. and Jaques, T. (2010). Achieving Project Management Success in the Federal Government. Vienna, Virginia: Management Concepts

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 or any listed author.

© 2010, Timothy Jaques, PMP and Jonathan Weinstein, PMP
Published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC



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