Project Management – When the Government is Your Customer

According to USA Spending, our federal government spent $523,849,632,233 on contracts for materials and services in 2009. That tells me there are thousands of project managers out there whose customer is the government. Reflecting on what is unique in managing a contract with a government client, I believe there are some key differences that directly affect the job of the project manager when compared to private sector clients.

First, let me say unequivocally that departments of the Federal government employ some of the hardest working and most competent individuals I have worked with and for. Theirs is not an easy row to hoe, either. All organizations have political intrigue and power battles. However, some debilitating ones can happen within government organizations with contractors caught in the crossfire. 

As a project manager on a government contract, you may have many bosses or at least a large number of stakeholders. One situation that impacts project management best practices with some frequency is when the user and the contracting organization are different. Best case, there is another layer of translation. Worst case, the contracting organization does not understand or even endorse the business-as-usual of the end user.

Another challenge is accommodating rapid changes in project management theology being developed within the private sector. Some government organizations have lead efforts for best practices and agile development. However, others still believe in classical software development methodology with mountains of requirements documents and step-by-step execution. These folks resist efforts to change because they have established monitoring systems based on older methods of software development.

The competitive, elaborate bidding process for government contracts moves so slowly sometimes that technology eclipses plans and derails efforts for successful development of cost-effective solutions.  For example, new and better hardware or software becomes available to meet the goals of the contract. Or, requirements are evolving and additional prototypes should be created and assessed. However, changing the planned execution is difficult because it can mean changing the contract.

A final thought on the challenge of working on government contracts. Many times events outside the project manager’s control or the control of your government counterpart end up sidetracking project execution. Like what? The appropriations bill has not been signed and there is a continuing resolution that does not include new contracts. Or, your government department must sacrifice some projects to free-up funds for a higher priority project. Or, a new administration places appointed persons into influential positions that change the general or specific course of the department.

With so much money involved, what is the right way to accept and even embrace work for the Federal government?

Help from the Professional Community
We have talked about PMBOK (Project Management Book of Knowledge) before in this blog in terms of its role in defining project management best practices. PMI offers and extension to the PMBOK that addresses the “complexities and unique characteristics of government projects make the need for a practice standard specific to the unique characteristics of public sector projects all the more apparent. The Government Extension to the PMBOK® Guide-Third Edition, extends the baseline information included in the PMBOK® Guide-Third Edition to provide an overview of the key project governance processes used in most public sectors, define key terms, describe atmospheres where government projects operate and review the management life-cycle of government programs.”

Proposal Writer’s offers a large number of government URLs that provide guidance on doing business with the government. It make take some time to navigate through to information that is directly relevant to your current situation, but worth a look-see.

Help from the Government
NASA offers several well-thought-out publications on their knowledge-sharing site that cover project management publications, lessons-learned, and case studies. 

Earned Value Management is a project management technique used by some government organizations to measure project progress in an objective manner including defining project scope, preventing scope creep, communicating progress to stakeholders, and keeping the project team focused on achieving progress. Here is the Department of Defense explanation of Earned Value Management from 2006.

If you have worked on government contracts, please share your experience and recommendations to help education us all.

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