Project Management Institute

Setting the standards



Melissa Starinsky, chancellor, Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Frederick, Maryland, USA

Longtime employees in the baby boomer generation began retiring during the 2000s, taking project and program management expertise with them. Leaders at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a PMI Global Executive Council member, took notice. In 2008, the VA—the second-largest U.S. federal agency—acted to mature its acquisition and project management capabilities. It created the VA Acquisition Academy, which trains civil servants to contract services and manage contractors, and prepares them for Office of Management and Budget federal certifications.

Since January 2013, Melissa Starinsky has overseen the Academy's five schools, including its Program Management School. Ms. Starinksy has more than two decades of acquisition and program management experience in the public and private sectors.

It's about more than procurement and contracting. Our workforce includes an integrated acquisition team: the project and program managers, the contracting officers, the legal representatives, the finance teams, end users and even contractors. The academy ensures that we're training this entire community and providing learning opportunities that bring its members together to enable a more efficient and effective acquisition system.

What does the acquisition team do exactly?

The VA's discretionary acquisition spend this year is about US$20 billion. The acquisition team ensures that money generates the proper supplies and services at the best value. The right project and program management experts have to be in place to ensure the proper investment for delivering services, whether they are offered through the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration or the National Cemetery Administration. Those are the VA's three primary service areas.

What does the Program Management School's training involve?

We have a core curriculum that covers project and program management principles related to cost, schedule and performance, and then we tailor those principles so that they're really relevant to the work of the government. We also have a whole slew of continuing education courses, like life-cycle cost estimation, work breakdown structure and agile in the federal government.

How does the academy address the need for soft skills?

We weave those skills into courses, and we have a PM Fellows program [project and program management] with skills-building workshops where our students are given hands-on activities. They get feedback before they head back into their job.

What about training beyond the classroom?

In addition to the classroom curriculum, we deploy teams of instructors to the field during crises to help manage risks and get programs back on track. For example, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we deployed a team to a flooded VA medical center to manage risks to our assets there.

What's a training program you've implemented at the academy?

I started a critical thinking program. It helps the team understand the assumptions we sometimes make that are often flawed, the conclusions we often draw from those flawed assumptions, and the arguments we need to make to form business cases. The teams work through those things in a classroom setting before they're in a state of crisis on a project with tight constraints when tensions often arise.

“A lot of project failure is related to cost, schedule and performance, but at the core of that is communication.”


How do you gauge whether academy courses improve project managers’ performance?

One of the reasons most projects fail is poor communication, so that's one of the most significant metrics we're tracking. We're seeing great results from academy graduates: an 87 percent increase in improved communication compared to before their training. Also: an 81 percent increase in program efficiency, a 55 percent reduction in overall program cost and a 72 percent improvement of timely delivery of services.

Can you offer a specific success story?

One program manager said that as a result of his academy training he now focuses on the larger acquisition strategy. He looks at the big picture rather than several one-off contracts and is more strategic in how he manages his contract portfolio. And he believes he's better able to communicate with higher-level people in the organization. Rather than going into a briefing and getting into the weeds with details, he's learned how to manage up to more effectively get buy-in from senior leadership.

What's the biggest challenge you face as chancellor?

Making sure people continue to see the value of maturing project and program management capability throughout the department. Training is an investment of money and time. Since we opened our doors, 17 other government agencies have sent employees to us, rather than other training sources. That speaks volumes to the value of our curriculum.

What's the greatest reward?

Helping wounded veterans move into a civilian career. Our Warriors to Workforce program helps veterans whose military careers were cut short through service-connected disabilities. We give them a strong foundation in program management, and then they go into the field to support the care and services we deliver to other veterans. Being a part of that has been incredibly rewarding. PM


Small Talk

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?

Do what you say you're going to do. Don't overpromise and under-deliver.

What's your favorite thing to do in your spare time?

Exercise outdoors. I used to be a marathon runner. I loved that to accomplish that big goal, you've got to be disciplined to reach interim milestones. That's how we approach program management.

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