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Good medicine for government 'diseases'

Gregory Balestrero
Gregory Balestrero is president and Chief Executive Officer of the Project Management Institute, a non-profit membership association of project management professionals.

Winston Churchill once described leadership as navigating between two precipices: the sheer face of caution on one side and the cliff of over-daring on the other. Given all that is going on today, including health-care reform, stimulus spending, the global economic crisis and two wars, the stresses and strains on governmental institutions are perhaps the greatest this nation has faced; the precipices among which the president and his administration are navigating are both numerous and treacherous.

In one area, though, the president and his administration are quietly, but smartly, seeking to walk that line between caution and over-daring. The president has begun to create a governance agenda that focuses on improved performance that will allow, if successfully implemented, a federal workforce to do better and be better--despite the forthcoming massive departure of knowledge and skills as baby boomers retire.

The president has already created the position of chief performance officer. He has already asked federal agencies to focus on fixing governance problems. As valid and important as these actions are, they will not be successful unless the president and his cabinet secretaries take the next step -- institutionalizing within the federal government a culture of project management. Simply put, government agencies must implement on the broadest scale possible project management practices to increase efficiency and fix the ongoing problems that plague them.

Project management is about planning, improved organization, working quickly and efficiently and finding and utilizing best practices; there is no group or government agency that could not systematically benefit from adhering to these principles. The project management discipline is a professional one, similar to accounting, engineering, information technology or the legal profession. By definition, it is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of a particular project while effectively managing it through all stages of development, from start to finish.

In layman's terms, project management is applying knowledge to meet goals on time and on budget--and therefore it is integral to how the government conducts its business.

Business leaders have learned that using project management lowers risk, brings profit, increases return on investment and improves quality. In recent studies among private sector enterprises not utilizing project management, only 29 percent of projects were completed on time and 50 percent saw significant challenges to schedule or budget. Companies who are less mature in project management miss budget targets by 20 percent and miss schedule targets 40 percent more often than companies who have experience in project management.

It is true that the "business" of the federal government in delivering products and services is often different than that of private companies. The U.S. government is not driven solely by profits; return on investment or market share--but there is nonetheless a demand for accountability and results.

While project managers are an increasingly valued asset to government work, many agencies continue to trudge along without fully utilizing the gamut of project management skills. This only creates a situation where failure far too often outnumbers success, and sadly there is story after story in the press about projects that are over budget, systems that are outmoded before they are installed and services that not efficiently delivered.

To draw an analogy from the health-care debate, project management is prevention. It focuses on preventing governance "diseases" from occurring, as opposed to the current system of fixing governance "sicknesses" after they occur.

Project management has been successfully used in a number of program-oriented and project-driven agencies, such as a cleanup project by the Department of Energy at Rocky Flats nuclear reactor site, which was finished seven percent ahead of schedule and six percent under planned cost. The Federal Aviation Administration's commitment to project management was a critical element in moving the agency off GAO's High Risk list.

Project management strikes at the heart of good governance by improving the delivery of services at a time of fiscal constraint. The benefits of increased use of project management in the government are evident. Money is saved as more projects are completed on-time and within budget. Worker morale, recruitment and retention are increased. Confidence in government is raised. Knowledge is institutionalized. A small investment in training and development is turned into a larger return. It's clear that effective project management is a key component of this new era of leadership.

By Gregory Balestrero

 |  January 8, 2010; 6:10 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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performance that will allow, if successfully implemented, a federal workforce to do better and be better--despite the forthcoming massive departure of knowledge and skills as baby boomers retire.............
As one of the above mentioned, I've see college graduates that are supposed to be smarter than me that can't even spell. It's kinda scary on this end.

Posted by: tjmlrc | January 11, 2010 11:48 AM

Holy cow, talk about not understanding how the government works. The undisputed, number 1 cause of government inefficiency is the Presidential appointees. I don't care how brilliant your leaders are, they are going to be completely neturalized if the people they answer to are incompetent and capricious.

The answer would be to appoint, you know, actual experts and scientists to run every federal Agency.

Posted by: Wallenstein | January 11, 2010 9:52 AM

I am a former government Contracting Officer, now retired. A lot of the suggestions made in this article are impossible to implement because of corruption associated with the small business lobby. Small businesses want the work split up into a number of smaller projects, thus making it more difficult to coordinate and accomplish work efforts done by multiple different contractors.
I am a firm believer in eliminating corporate contracting as much as possible, in favor of using self-employed individuals and re-writing statutes so that old, outdated case law about "personal services" is eliminated.
The United Nations has a good system worth looking at, in which "independent consultants" are hired individually through their personnel system, instead of putting together contracts through the procurement system. I think there would be much more accountability if the Federal government used this approach.
If the Federal government used self-employed individuals in conjunction with the kind of improved PM system Mr. Balestrero suggests, Uncle Sam could save billions of dollars per year now spent on non-value-added corporate profit and corporate overhead.
But the Congress might not like this system, because people working under 1099s might not have as much money to contribute to political campaigns.

Posted by: ripvanwinkleincollege | January 8, 2010 6:54 PM

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