The project management project--challenges in the public sector

Abstract

This paper discusses the state of projects and project management within one of the largest government ministries in Trinidad and Tobago. It focuses on attempts to deliver IT-related projects but it is intended to be a first step aimed at identifying strategies for overcoming the hurdles of adoption and acceptance of project management practices in the entire ministry and ultimately across the local public sector.

We begin by looking at the operations within the IT department and the ministry to identify the project management related issues that exist. We then discuss the efforts made to overcome these challenges and examine the effectiveness of these attempts in increasing project performance. We conclude with recommendations on a way forward to increasing the adoption of best practices, which should lead to increased efficiency within the department and ministry.

Although the discussion is based on a review of single government ministry, we discuss concepts that can provide guidance and can be applied more broadly to firms with lower maturity or those that have less structured project management practices.

Keywords: project management; portfolio management; project governance; public sector

Introduction

Technology-based initiatives historically have relatively high rates of failure (as noted by the Standish and Gartner Groups). In many instances, project management has been introduced as a means of increasing the probability of on-time and within-budget delivery. Public sector organizations and government ministries are no exception. As governments seek to employ web-based technologies to provide services to citizens, many are embarking on elaborate and costly eGovernment projects and they are depending on project management to ensure that these are delivered successfully. However, the implementation of project management practices is not always smooth and does not always deliver the benefits originally intended. This could be because the introduction is not handled as a project itself with attention being paid to the definition of goal and objectives; the establishment of project governance and careful examination of the environment in which it is being rolled out. Successful implementations can only be the result of a formal project management project.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines project management as the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements. Kerzner (2009) defines Project Management as the planning, organizing, directing, and controlling of company resources for a relatively short-term objective that has been established to complete specific goals and objectives. This short-term objective describes a project, defined in the PMBOK® Guide as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. In both instances, we see that project management is concerned with guiding the delivery or implementation of a project and its deliverables. Efficiency and success of project management therefore relate to the ability of the processes to deliver the project within the stated time, budget, and quality requirements.

Project success is not the same as project management success. The definition specifies that a project is a “temporary endeavor” signifying that there is a definite end date. This, however, pertains to the expected date of delivery or implementation of the project. Success of the project itself usually cannot be measured by this time frame. Projects are undertaken for a reason: to meet a specific need, to address an issue, and therefore have a stated or unstated objective. Project success, therefore, must include a measure against these objectives and this is often only possible in the long term or some time after the project delivered or implemented.

Although it is often argued that good project management can contribute toward project success, it is unlikely to be able to prevent failure (Bjeirmi & Munns, 1996), the investment in a project management project can be justified, particularly when it comes to costly public sector projects.

Here we discuss the unique challenges to the rolling out and adoption of project management practices in the public sector and identify strategies to address them.

Method and Approach

This paper is the first stage of a more comprehensive research sequence to identify and rectify issues that exist within public sector project management. We examine operations within the IT department of one of the largest government ministries in Trinidad and Tobago. Semi-structured interviews were conducted, with staff and practitioners responsible for the delivery of projects. This perspective is important because oftentimes these assessments are done by consultants who are brought in by management. The fact that the examination was initiated at the upper level shows that there is already support and commitment for project management and, as we will see, this top-down approach and introduction is one of the key success factors in elements in the successful implementation of the best practices.

Participants were asked open-ended questions to ascertain their definition and understanding of projects and project management; what challenges they experience or observe within the department to getting the work done and what they perceive as reasons why formal structured project management is not consistently practiced within the department. Participants from outside the department were asked variations of the questions to gain their perspective of project management within the IT department and the ministry in general.

Feedback obtained was used to capture the current state in the department and ministry. Gaps were then identified by comparison with best practices as documented in both academic and professional publications.

The pool of interviewees included project managers, IT technicians, and general managers within the IT department; as well as persons from units with which the IT Department interacts. These include the Project Management Unit (PMU) and the Policy and Planning Department who are responsible for reporting the Ministry's activities to the Ministry of Planning.

The Public Sector Environment

Public sector organizations are run by and ultimately report to the government. Here, we look at the operations of one of the government ministries directly responsible for delivery of a specific service to the citizenry. Ministries belong to the Executive branch of government headed by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Within each ministry, there is a Minister who provides representation to the Cabinet and a Permanent Secretary who serves as liaison with the individual department heads.

As we will see later on, this very structure, with its multiple levels and reporting lines, provides one of the major challenges to project management implementation and adoption.

The public sector also includes special purpose companies who are run similarly to many private firms. They are operated under the direction of a state appointed board who also ultimately reports to a line minister in the same way as the regular ministries. These companies, however, are not examined as part of our scope at this time.

The Current Project Environment

The research for this paper looks at operations within one of the largest government ministries in Trinidad and Tobago. The project management concerns and issues addressed by participants and observed in the Department appear to mirror challenges documented in literature as being associated with organizations that have lower levels of project management maturity.

The myriad of issues raised could be classed into the areas identified below:

Project Delivery

By far, the most resounding complaint within the Department and across the Ministry is that projects do not seem to get to a point of closure or produce tangible final deliverables. Projects, by definition are temporary and should have a discernible end. In this environment, projects seem to either go on indefinitely or be stopped before completion. This “inability to deliver” is not just the view of upper management. Project managers and technicians also express concerns that their efforts on initiatives continued for exceptionally long periods or were simply dropped.

The phenomenon of these ongoing projects is a result of either poor project definition or a misunderstanding of the delineation between projects and operations. Clear expression of project goals and objectives has been identified as a critical factor in successful project delivery. The definition of goals and objectives is a key activity in good and efficient project management.

An improper or incomplete definition of the project as a whole, including its scope and purpose, is also a contributor to ongoing projects. Scope creep and gold plating are very real possibilities when project initiation is not properly managed by good project management practices.

Organizational Structure and Reporting Lines

This issue was not so much raised by the management level but by the persons responsible for project delivery, particularly at the technician level. The structure of the Department could best be described as functional; this, despite the presence of three project managers and numerous projects. Request for assistance for both project and operations come in on a consistent basis and without the existence of assigned project teams, resources are almost expected to work on any task at any time.

The Department structure is such that there are persons responsible for the needs of other external or adjunct agencies. At times, however, project delivery crosses these agency lines. The lack of a single point of contact or control for activities, and even project managers are sometimes unclear as to who is responsible for following up on a task or assignment. This unstructured approach to task and resource request also results in duplicity of effort. Appropriate and accurate definitions of roles and responsibilities can alleviate this issue.

Resourcing and Resource Management

It is not unusual to hear people complain that they are overworked. This department is no different. With less than ten (10) technicians, one Systems Administrator, and one Network Administrator serving the needs of more than 400 persons across fifteen (15) locations, resourcing is always going to be an issue. These people form the lifeline for keeping the functions within the Ministry going, including Finance, Human Resources, and other key supporting functional areas. It is these same resources that are expected to support the projects within the Department. In a recent exercise, more than (20) IT projects were identified as being current, active, and “in-progress.”

Understaffing has long been identified as an issue and attempts are consistently being made to augment staff. The matter of project selection and prioritization, however, has not received as much attention. Projects seem to be initiated without much consideration for the resources required for execution. This issue ties closely with the two issues raised earlier. Limited technical resourcing, including singular points responsible for network design; network administration, and data communications mean that the formation or operation of dedicated project teams is near impossible. Project requests are made by approaching these key resources directly who naturally have a tough time scheduling given the fact that operational demands take priority.

Project prioritization is not always or effectively done at the upper levels of the Ministry, which is reflected throughout.

The Project Management Project

Implementing project management solutions designed to have lasting and fruitful effects on the organization must recognize the issues and address them directly. Avots (1969), Kerzner (2009), and Pinto and Slevin (1988) spoke to the factors that affect or influence the efficiency of project management. They cited, among others, the inadequate basis for projects; unsupportive top management; inadequately defined tasks; lack of project management techniques; misused management techniques; and lack of commitment to the project.

Many of these could be seen as missing or insufficiently implemented within the Department or Ministry. In the next few sections, we identify a few of the areas that should be addressed closely to increase the rate of success of the project management project.

Project Governance

Project governance can be defined as a set of management systems, rules, protocols, relationships and structures that provide the framework within which decisions are made for project development and implementation to achieve their intended business or strategic motivation (Bekker & Steyn, 2009).

In a note of guidance, produced by Her Majesty's Treasury (Treasury, 2007), project governance is about helping to ensure that the right projects are done well. The document went on to describe the main activities of project governance as relating to:

  • program direction;
  • project ownership and sponsorship;
  • ensuring the effectiveness of project management functions; and
  • reporting and disclosure (including consulting with stakeholders).

The aims of a project governance structure are to:

  • Set out lines of responsibility and accountability within the Authority for the delivery of the project;
  • Give the stakeholders in the Authority the ability to manage their interest in the project;
  • Support the Authority's project team to deliver the required outcomes by providing resources, giving direction, and enabling trade-offs and timely decision taking;
  • Provide a forum for issue resolution;
  • Provide access to best practice and independent expert advice;
  • Disseminate information by reporting to stakeholders so that they can effectively fulfill their roles; and
  • Provide a framework for project disclosures.

Project governance, therefore, covers every aspect of the project life from initial selection to prioritization to monitoring to delivery. Proper structures ensure that requirements are gathered and that champions and sponsors are on board to address project issues as they arise.

The project governance processes within the Ministry are in the formation stages and so make it difficult to implement projects and project management. Under the current structure, project ideas are generated from one of two sources. At the government or strategic level, projects or programs may be proposed as part of the government's strategic planning. Local examples include the Public Sector Improvement Program (PSIP) and the Health Sector Reform Program. More often, projects are suggested from the individual Ministries up to the central government. Under this method, the Finance or Planning unit of each ministry collects proposals from other's departments. This list is filtered before being forwarded to the Ministry of Finance, who makes monetary allocations to the ministries based on the new and recurrent projects presented.

Within our Ministry in focus, IT was identified as a key pillar for development and thirty-one (31) IT-related projects were proposed. Thirteen (13) were formally initiated with documents prepared and submitted to the Permanent Secretary (PS) for review and approval. Of the thirteen (13), six (6) made it beyond initial planning, with the other currently in limbo due to resource restraints or turnover of project managers, subject matter experts (SMEs), or technical resources.

For the projects that started, teams were established, charters were produced and in some instances, consultants (local and foreign) were brought on board. As work on the projects continued within the Department, scoping, requirements, and planning deliverables were produced. Monthly reports were done and submitted to the office of the Permanent Secretary.

Although the projects were well underway, formal approval was never attained and no champions were identified. This was a clear gap in the governance process. Eventually, attempts were made to fill this gap by the formation of the Change and Transformation Unit (CTU) who was charged with approval of new projects and the overview of ongoing ones.

The CTU ultimately ceased to function; however, the IT department continued preparing reports — primarily for internal use, using templates within the Department. Reports were also submitted to other departments, when requested, for forwarding to external agencies, such as the Ministry of Planning and the Office of the Prime Minister.

Currently, two key aspects of a governance structure have been revived. These are a Project Management Unit (PMU) and a Project Management Board. The PMU has created a series of standard templates for project artefacts, including the Project Charter; Scope Statement, and Project Plan. The PMU has also simplified monthly department reporting. The Project Board has only been in existence for a few months and has the mandate of granting formal approval to new projects.

The current structure is definitely a step in the right direction toward internal project governance; however, there are still several issues:

  • Not all departments are staffed with persons skilled in planning or scheduling
  • Board meetings are sporadic
  • Focus on documentation and internal reporting
  • Disconnect with higher level reporting requirements

Further attention to project governance within the Ministry will not only address the current issues but go a long way in increasing the project management effectiveness and developing a more lasting implementation of project management.

Project Portfolio Management — Strategic versus Tactical

A portfolio is defined as a group of projects that compete for scarce resources and are conducted under the sponsorship or management of a particular organization (Archer & Ghasemzadeh, 1999). The main objectives of project portfolio management (PPM) are the maximization of business value of the portfolio of projects, aligning the project portfolio to the company's strategy and finding the right balance within the portfolio in order to understand trade-offs in objectives (Calderini, et al, 2005).

PPM is applied at the level between the setting of organizational strategic objectives and the execution of the projects designed to support these objectives. PPM therefore cannot be performed without accurate information being fed upward from the proper management of projects. Project management is therefore the base that supports the direction of an organization. This view that project management is a means of obtaining information that could help drive strategic direction is not often understood or practiced within the Ministry.

Project management is employed from a tactical perspective. It is implemented as an individual tool, and project managers apply the principles as best they can to deliver elements of the project. This is synonymous with an ad hoc approach where there is little synergy in the way projects are managed. The Project Management Unit (PMU) is attempting to arrest this by the creation of standardized templates and reporting; however, processes to govern the full project management life cycle have not yet been developed.

A paradigm shift, where PPM is appreciated and where projects are seen as the pillars that support the organization is needed. PPM can be employed to ensure that the projects being conducted in all departments meet the Ministry's strategic objectives as well as the national agenda. Without the visibility and control provided by PPM, the risk of misalignment with overall strategy is increased. Executives must act to mitigate this risk and so it would be in the interest of all stakeholders to implement some level of project and portfolio management. As a strategic requirement, project management is likely to gather more support as efforts are made to improve maturity.

Properly managed projects and project management serve as the base to overall program management and portfolio management. If we take the approach where requirements are defined at the top level, project management guidelines will be driven downward and the chances of implementation success will be improved.

The Role of Change Management and Culture

Implementing project management or increasing an organization's project management maturity level invariably results in an alteration in the expected behavior of stakeholders. The project management project is therefore a change management initiative and should be managed as such. This is not always the approach taken, resulting in less than optimal results.

Initiatives designed to effect organizational change must consider many factors, including the potential effect of the change and culture of the organization. Organizational culture refers to the individually respected conditions within an organization, its collective values and norms (Schein, 1985). With public sector institutions, culture can be a particularly difficult challenge to overcome and so careful attention must be paid to that aspect. Many institutions have change management units or departments that can assist in planning the deployment of project management practices.

The Role of Politics

Any discussion of matters affecting operations within a public sector institution would be incomplete if the effect of politics is not addressed. Politics has a huge part to play in the way projects are conducted within the Department and the Ministry. Many of the challenges mentioned above can in some way be said to be a by-product of politics.

Project management relies on the proper planning of tasks, followed by the carefully managed execution of those tasks. Therefore, execution of a set plan is key (even in the realm of agile, we are working toward a set goal). In many instances, however, politicians tend to be reactive — sometimes out of necessity. Planning is more difficult in public sector organizations because of the short-term considerations of politicians (Lawton & Rose, 1994). The political cycle is often between 3 and 5 years significantly shorter than the typical strategic planning cycle. Politicians are not always willing to forego the projects that may deliver a quick win within the election cycle, for projects that can deliver benefits in the longer term. The need to reach for low-hanging fruit to appease constituents can also lead to a circumventing of project governance and prioritization policies put in place at the department level.

Projects attempting to implement formal standardized processes — such as the project management project – can be adversely affected by this “short-circuiting” of processes. It undermines the confidence of the persons being asked to embrace the new policies and makes the job of the change agents and implementers that much more difficult.

Conclusion

Avots (1969) suggested that project management as a method of overall management is more efficient than the then traditional forms such as functional divisions and hierarchical structures. He stated that the project structure would facilitate the faster decision making and mobilization of resources that are required for project success. Many project management professionals subscribe to this notion; however, they find themselves in situations within organizations that struggle to implement and attain benefits they know are possible.

The paper addressed some of the challenges experienced in having project management practices implemented and adopted in public sector organizations. Challenges present opportunities and, while this study focused on the public sector in Trinidad and Tobago, the issues discussed, the process followed in identifying challenges, and determining a roll-out strategy, can be extrapolated to provide a roadmap for project management implementation in many other organizations that have less than straightforward governance structures and that may not be very far advanced on the project management maturity (PMM) scale.

Implementing project management best practices in a manner that it will be effective in the long run is always a challenging prospect. Ideally, it must be championed by the very top. However, practitioners and professionals who most understand the discipline are often embedded at lower levels in the organization. The upward sell may be difficult but not impossible. Leveraging these very professionals as change agents is essential.

In order for the change effort that is the project management project to be successful, we must focus on the critical factors that contribute to the success of any project. These include the clear definition of goals and objectives and the direct support and buy-in of a project champion.

Next Steps

The genesis of this topic and paper was examination into possible research areas pertaining to project and portfolio management that would benefit the public sector of Trinidad and Tobago. It was quickly realized that there are many different areas that could be explored. We briefly touched on many of them here merely as a starting point and to highlight the expanse of the topic. The next step would be to narrow down the topic areas and develop a more narrow focus. While we determine our area of focus, we opted to focus on a single representative Ministry (and hold discussions with agencies that provide services to others). We deemed this sufficient because this report is not a quantitative one. Our immediate next steps, therefore, would be to continue critically reviewing the literature and expanding interviews to identify a sound research proposal that can be used to add knowledge to the project and portfolio management community.

References

Archer, N., & Ghasemzadeh, F. (1999, August). An integrated framework for project portfolio selection. International Journal of Project Managment, 17(4), 207–216.

Avots, I. (1969, Fall). Why does project management fail? California Management Review, 12(1), 77–82.

Bekker, M., & Steyn, H. (2009). Project governance: Definition and framework. Journal of Contemporary Management, 6, 214–228.

Bjeirmi, B., & Munns, A. (1996, April). The role of project management in achieving project success. International Journal of Project Management, 14(2), 81–87.

Calderini, S. R., Reyck, B. D., Gruska-Cockayne, Y., Locket, M., Moura, M., & Sloper, A. (2005, October). The impact of project portfolio management on information technology projects. International Journal of Project Managment, 23(7), 524–537.

Kerzner, H. (2009). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling and controlling. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Lawton, A., & Rose, A. (1994). Organization and management in the public sector. London: Financial Times Management.

Pinto, J. K., & Slevin, D. P. (1988). Critical success factors in effective project implementation. In D. I. Cleland, Project Management Handbook (pp 167–190). New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Schein, E. (1985). How culture forms, develops and changes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Treasury, H. (2007). Project governance: A guidance note for public sector projects. Norwich, UK: Her Magesty's Treasury.

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.

© 2012, Anson L.E. Caliste
Originally published as part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada

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