Project Management Institute

Local governments

a cultural perspective

Concerns of Project Managers

Local Government

Jeff Busch, PMP, and Perry Smith, Pinnell/Busch, Inc., Portland, Oregon

We all like to complain about government: the bureaucracy, the apparent inefficiency, the waste, and the cushy “tenure” many government employees seem to enjoy. It is almost accepted as truth that government would work better if it ran more like a business. But consider the unique position government and its employees are in.

Government is required to satisfy multiple bosses. There are the managers who are hired or appointed by directors. These directors are either hired or appointed, usually by elected officials. Each election year has the potential to bring in an entirely new team of elected officials. Imagine having to accommodate a new boss every two years! And then, there is the boss, which is the public. Nothing government does is completed in the privacy afforded private businesses: it is constantly accountable to the endless variety of public opinion.

Even among different governments, there is a hierarchy that makes management a challenge unlike any private business. Local governments are most accessible to the public, but they are often viewed as “low man on the totem pole,” taking orders from and often depending on the larger regional, state, and federal governments.

Given the complexity of issues required of government and the multifaceted nature of its customers and its organizational objectives, local government would seem to be ripe territory for advancing the importance of Modem Project Management (MPM) system development.


As consultants providing services to local governments, we have encountered numerous varieties of operational cultures. In some instances, the nature of the culture is as clear as night and day, while in others it is rooted much deeper and often based on internal politics or unwritten rules. There is also an enormous variety of ways that government organizations exhibit their level of understanding of project management. From elaborate procedural systems to simple “go out and get it done” practices, local governments each have their own performance criteria.

As project managers, we know that when we have a task that requires help from or coordination with others, the planning/performing cycle becomes more complex. The larger and more complex the task and the more people involved, the more essential it is that the process be performed in an organized fashion. MPM establishes the framework to make this happen in a project-driven culture. An aspect that adds a complex component to local governments is that they operate in both a project-driven environment and in an ongoing operational environment. This alone is enough to create the bureaucracy within which these organizations must work.

Local governments truly do want to be cost-efficient and productive. Furthermore, they are very aware of how the general public tends to perceive their operations. In some instances, no matter what the local government does to continually improve itself, it will always be perceived as a bureaucracy and inefficient.


With the information superhighway just around the comer, the need is growing for local and state governments to improve their computerized management tools. Experience shows that the extent to which these computer systems are successfully implemented is largely dependent on the organization itself. The ability of the organization to define just exactly what it is they want and how it should function is often the first big challenge. Getting everyone to agree on it can be even a greater challenge. Obviously, Scope Management is a necessity.

Once the objectives are defined and agreed upon, the process in which the computerized system is procured and implemented should be considered an actual project and not just taken for granted as another “stores or spare parts” purchase. Experience has again demonstrated that changes to major management processes need the framework of project management, not just at the beginning but throughout the life of the implementation period and even beyond.


Take for example, an agency with the City of Seattle that a few years ago attempted to computerize its entire project management system simultaneously. Needless to say, it failed miserably. A recent second attempt, in which smaller portions were implemented a step at a time before the next step could begin, has been very successful. Another perception that often creates disillusionment is that once implemented the system should be self-managing. Project management systems are a planning and control tool, not a “cast in stone” system. They do not emulate real life, but simply use data to provide a basis on which management decisions should be made. For example, small details can cause hang-ups in a resource forecast system, like what happens when Joe is on vacation? Who is going to do his work? High-tech systems are not a cure-all for existing PM shortcomings.

The selection of the actual software product to perform the identified scope is a major decision, for at least two reasons. One, the software should meet the scope requirements and two, people have to be able to use it efficiently. After all, a goal of implementing the computerized system is to have one that works.

Case in point: The Department of Public Works for the City of Salem, Oregon, had already chosen two software products to meet its need for a project engineering management system, one for number-crunching and the other for user-friendly data input. This in itself could have led to compatibility problems not even related to the actual goal of a usable engineering resource tool. Our contract was to provide system installation and training. Internally, our first objective was to re-evaluate the need for two systems. As it turned out, there really was not a substantiated reason to use both software products.

Secondly, we jointly developed intermediate objectives that were realistic and had to be met before the next stage would begin. A pitfall of some local governments is the establishment of unrealistic goals and objectives, to meet either the public image or some political idea by a council member. An unfortunate disservice to the government is when the supplier or consultant promises that it can easily meet those objectives.

A success factor on this project was the role of the chief design engineer, Mr. Dave Prock. Had it not been for his commitment and dedication to the project, the installation and training process could easily have stalled internally. He knew the organization very well and the culture in which it operates. He also possessed the technical and people skills to identify and resolve potential problems before users were let loose on the system. To borrow from a TQM foundation, his exhibited behavior demonstrated to the ranks that top management was system-serious and was intimately involved in the change process.


How local governments practice project management and demonstrate its culture on the outside is an area that also brings out concerns. Take, for example, Multnomah County, which encompasses the City of Portland, Oregon. It uses the Standard Specifications published by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to contractually administer its road construction projects. It often relies on the precedents set by ODOT for its PM procedures and decisions.

Washington County, Oregon, next door to Multnomah County, operates in a similar manner in that it also uses the Standard Specifications to administer its road projects. Since its first major road improvement project in 1987, its project management evolved through a learning curve that has been very sharp. Today, on a typical project, the PM and CM groups work closely together throughout the design phase. Construction inspectors and staff get involved in the review of plans from the 50-percent level through specification development and final contract drawings. This working relationship between project coordinators has been very effective and continually resolves potential issues before they become costly problems.

Mr. Al Girard, a construction project manger for Washington County, says that its PM is very aggressive and the positive results support its actions. One of these actions is to look to the private sector to provide special expertise as well as technical and management services. It has shaped its own well-respected PM culture.


In an age when consumers expect more and more service value for their dollar, it is essential that local governments remember who their consumers and customers are. The challenge of Modem Project Management, especially highlighted in private business, is to strive for total quality and constantly-improving performance in an environment of ever-increasing pressure.

For a growing number of private businesses, adopting and relying on proven, modem techniques of project management is paying dividends. For businesses, this translates to bottom-line savings, increased profits, and security for a business's life. Local governments can find similar rewards. Instead of increasing “profits,” the fruits of successful project management could come to government in the form of an ability to service more people with less resources. If more agencies adopt these practices, then maybe we would all be less inclined to complain about government. img


Jeff Busch, PMP is a principal with Pinnell/Busch, Inc., a project management consulting firm. He has implemented numerous continuous business improvement projects for businesses and continues to provide cost-effective project management training and consulting services for clients throughout the Northwest.


Perry Smith, is the senior systems analyst with Pinnell/Busch, Inc. He has implemented various computerized project/program management systems for governmental agencies and contractors. He also concentrates on software system design, implementation, sales, and support of a leading project management system.

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.

PMNETwork • August 1994



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