TEN MONTHS after shaking up the government IT world, one of the field’s highest-profile reformers stepped down.
Vivek Kundra, the first CIO of the United States, resigned less than a year after releasing his 25-point plan to reform the government’s IT landscape. Though short, his tenure created at least one sweeping legacy: a new, specialized job classification and an official career path for high-level IT program managers throughout the U.S. federal government.
Released in June, the standard specifies that an IT program manager is accountable for the program’s overall success and is responsible for ensuring that it aligns with the relevant agency’s overall business strategy. The classification defines IT program management as “work that involves managing one or more major multi-year IT initiatives of such magnitude that they must be carried out through multiple related IT projects.”
The move brings a much-needed focus on program management in government—which is also appreciated outside the United States.
“With program management being recognized as an official career field, it certainly helps shed light on the special skills required to fulfill this role, like political acuity, strong communication and negotiation skills, risk management, and keeping a program on track to deliver the expected business outcomes,” says Vajitha Ghouse, PMP, senior project management consultant, Project Management Centre of Excellence, Ontario Ministry of Government Services, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
The new structure could have a sweeping impact on the effectiveness of government projects across agencies. One U.S. defense-related agency, for example, attributed cost reductions of 20 to 30 percent on average to using trained program managers and adopting a more systematic approach to managing projects and programs, according to a 2010 PMI study, Successful Program Management in the U.S. Federal Government.
The study, which evaluated success factors in 40 programs across agencies, pointed to the importance of the right talent. Eighty percent of the respondents ranked appropriate program management experience as 7 or above on a scale of 10 in terms of importance to project success.
Yet, as Mr. Kundra’s plan makes clear, there’s a shortage of qualified personnel within the federal government—which the classification is aimed squarely at addressing.
“A strategic approach to recruitment and retention of skilled IT resources will facilitate government agencies to bring in specialized talent to support their enterprise-wide initiatives,” Ms. Ghouse says.
And those agencies already making progress in attracting and retaining IT project and program managers can accelerate their efforts, says Michael O’Brochta, PMP, president of Zozer Inc., a project management consulting company in Roanoke, Virginia, USA.
And that means improved job prospects for project professionals. “Career opportunities for IT project and program managers could expand. Agencies must take advantage of the opportunity to require more of their mission-critical projects and programs to be run by qualified project and program managers who have a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification and/or the new government-wide Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers (FAC-P/PM),” says Mr. O’Brochta, a former project manager at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “IT project and program managers who have the necessary skills and experience will likely see more opportunities for career advancement and that additional federal funding has already been provided for this purpose.”
The program manager position is considered part of the “senior executive service,” meaning the government can offer salaries competitive with the private sector.
ON THE RIGHT PATH
Some government agencies have already instituted successful program management training initiatives. Even prior to Mr. Kundra’s plan, the Social Security Administration (SSA) had developed a career track for program managers. Only by gaining experience on smaller projects can project professionals in the SSA advance to take on more complex programs.
The benefits of such training initiatives are manifold, and it behooves all levels of government to get on board sooner rather than later, Ms. Ghouse says. Not only does a defined career path demonstrate an organization’s commitment to employee development, it also shows project professionals specifically how to progress within an organization.
“A career path helps employees plan their training and development, supports them to make knowledgeable career decisions, highlights transferable skills and encourages job mobility,” she says.
During Mr. O’Brochta’s 30-year tenure with the CIA, for example, he built a project management and systems engineering training and certification program to help mature practices agency-wide. And he followed that career path himself.
The fate of other parts of Mr. Kundra’s 25-point plan remains unclear, with his successor, Steven VanRoekel, named in August. Congress, for example, slashed e-government funding to $13 million for fiscal year 2011, down from $34 million in 2010. However, future career opportunities for government IT project and program managers couldn’t be clearer. —Rachel Zupek