Public Sector Project Management

August 2009

While the basic procedural processes remain consistent, the road to success for public sector project managers is littered with challenges not found in the private sector. Profit discussed the differences with David Wirick, Project Management Professional and visiting scholar at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University and author of the forthcoming Managing Public Sector Projects (John Wiley and Sons, 2009).

Profit: Are public sector projects more difficult, or do they just run by different rules?

Wirick: If you can manage a public sector project, you can manage anything. There are some fundamental differences that can be challenging. The first thing you need to understand is that you are operating against an overlapping set of rules, standards, and processes designed to limit the latitude of public sector employees. At heart, those processes are not there to help people get things done but to ensure adherence to a consistent standard of behavior. Projects must operate within these constraints.

Profit: Does rigidity extend to the stakeholder level?

Wirick: Yes, but in a different way. You are more apt to run into an overlapping set of stakeholders—some of whom you may not even be aware of—who may not have direct involvement in a project but can slow down or even stop a project. Often this happens because their jobs are to manage the process and system of constraints we just talked about. For example, about 25 years ago, I was working on a healthcare project in which we created an administrative rule in order to let private sector providers provide services. Out of the blue, the state auditor came in and said that the rule had been established incorrectly, and therefore everything built on that rule was negated. Your job is to make sure you color within the lines.

Profit: What about politics? That must be a real differentiator.

Wirick: The political process essentially hands you a built-in adversary. The other party is not particularly keen on your success. And while the press plays a valid role, they like to report on failures more than success. It’s a more adversarial and complex setup—you have more stakeholders but at the same time you have less authority. The other aspect of the political process is budgeting. You cannot legally bind future legislatures fiscally, so there is no guarantee that projects will be fully funded—you’re often stuck with reselling and repackaging projects. Legislation can also affect both the deadlines and scope of projects, which can make it difficult for project managers to effectively delineate project scope or timelines. For example, the recent stimulus funding will cause project mania. We’ll see a huge influx of funding, but the parameters surrounding that funding are not completely clear and can change. I can almost guarantee that a year from now, people will stand around poking the people responsible for administering stimulus funds and ask, “You did what?”

Profit: Are there any particular skills needed for project success?

Wirick: You cannot succeed without the softer skills of project management—conflict management, negotiation, diplomacy, managing stakeholder expectations. Those things are a basic requirement for public sector project management. You have less authority than private sector peers, so you need to be able to induce behavior rather than order it. It also requires a certain emotional maturity, something that the Standish Group’s annual report on IT project management recently listed as a critical factor for project success.

I think what they are getting at is that you need to be able to see that people putting up roadblocks are not out to get you—they’re only trying to fulfill the role assigned to them. You need to embrace the project as a community effort and understand that it’s not about your ego but all about accomplishing results within the system. The other thing I would advise is to pay a lot of attention to the requirements phase, particularly for IT projects. You need to develop a very disciplined requirements development process and make sure that it is consistently used. It allows the project manager and business analyst to hide behind the process—fighting bureaucracy with bureaucracy.

Profit: In the end, is it worth it?

Wirick: Absolutely. Working in the public sector is a different beast. And it’s a big market: 17 percent of the gross domestic product of the world is the public sector, and a lot of money gets spent on projects. Many agencies and governmental entities are very interested in finding and developing good project managers.

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