The Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services proves that a systematic approach to project management is still the best way to guarantee that IT projects are delivered on time and within budget
The Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) knows that to have a project that is on time, on budget, and delivers not only according to specifications but expectations as well, is to have a rare bird indeed. And it is determined to maximize its chances of achieving project success in every way it can.
All projects — IT projects in particular — are prone to disappoint in one aspect or another. A range of studies over the years has shown how poor the track record has been, with the majority of projects — perhaps as many as 90 per cent — failing to deliver in terms of budget, schedule or functionality.
Of course the situation has steadily improved over time. The US-based Standish Group’s 1994 Chaos Report showed 31.1 per cent of software development projects were being cancelled before they ever get completed. Some 52.7 per cent of projects were costing 189 per cent of their original estimates. The cost of these failures and overruns was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the report said. “The lost opportunity costs are not measurable, but could easily be in the trillions of dollars.”
Back then, for larger organizations, less than 10 per cent of software projects came in on time and on budget. For every 100 projects, there were 94 restarts (with some projects having multiple restarts).
For FaCS and other organizations alike, the Standish Group report proved a useful wake-up call, and organizational project management track records have been steadily improving. Standish’s 2003 report shows project success rates have increased to just over a third of all projects, marking a 100 per cent-plus improvement over the 16 per cent rate in 1994. Project failures have declined to 15 per cent of all projects, which is less than half the 1994 figure. Even so, time overruns increased significantly to 82 per cent from a low of 63 per cent in the year 2000. Overall, the room for improvement remains substantial.
Public sector organizations are by no means immune to such problems, and in many instances their disasters are more highly publicized than their private sector equivalents, not least because they represent a loss of public funds. The redevelopment of Bruce Stadium in Canberra and the federal government’s whole-of-government IT outsourcing projects spring readily to mind.
The Project Management Project
One way to ensure that there is an improvement is to add some method to the madness. That is precisely why FaCS has set up a Project Management Integration Office (PMIO) and developed a comprehensive Project Management Framework (PMF).
According to Virginia Mudie, one of the two “founding mothers” instrumental in the framework’s development, the PMIO and the PMF were born out of a need for a more consistent and systematic approach to project management rather than any specific project horror story.
The initial spark for the PMF was the Australians Working Together initiative, a major reform of the welfare system launched in mid-2001, and the need to report to ministers and the government on progress of initiatives affecting the community.
“Project management allows you to understand the things that actually affect a business,” Mudie says. “What I wanted to do was to start to instil into public service thinking a view that their work is a business. Therefore, you need some tools and some discipline around how you manage the business.”
And a very large business it is, too. The department’s activities take up a third of the federal government’s annual budget.
Until recently, Mudie was FaCS’s executive director for people, business improvement and governance. Together with Meg Smith, now director of the PMIO, they initiated the development of what is currently a 129-page document that lays out all of the stages, processes, roles and responsibilities required to project manage within the department — the Project Management Framework.
This document was produced as an interactive PowerPoint presentation, with live links to a range of required and ancillary information, including standard reporting forms, templates, schedules, explanatory documentation and glossaries.
With Mudie performing the role of “a very actively-involved project sponsor” and Smith putting their ideas into form, work on the framework commenced late in 2001, with the design and foundation information for the PMF prepared by Smith and two consultants from Deakin Management Consulting (now part of CPT Global).
From February to October 2002, work in refining the framework was continued solely by Smith through promotion of project management concepts and testing of the tools and templates through project support activities. This meant that the framework went through a series of iterations, with parts being tested on members of the department at different intervals for gradual refinement and improvement.
The number of staff on the project increased to three in February 2003 in preparation for the framework’s formal launch in May last year. They worked on finalizing the framework, while increasing promotional and project support activities across FaCS’s network.
“We needed to develop a framework that was relatively simple and wasn’t overly burdensome on people,” Mudie recalls.
“The framework for me is about getting consistency across the organization but without being overly prescriptive. You get emphasis on practical guides and checks rather than the convoluted templates that are 50 pages long, where people spend all their time filling in the templates rather than doing their work.
“There are elements of that that are valuable, but if it actually overrides the process of understanding the business because you’re just filling in the words, then I’ve got a real concern.”
The current incarnation of PMIO is split into two teams: a reporting team that monitors and provides departmental management with information on projects has two officers (a reduction from three took place at the end of June this year); and a support team with four officers who provide facilitation services and project management training programs, maintain the PMF and undertake marketing and communication responsibilities on behalf of the team. There is some overlap between the two groups, particularly from the support team, which assists the reporting team during periods of high workload.
Drawing on the international Project Management Institute’s “Project Management Body of Knowledge” (PMBoK), FaCS’s project management framework follows nine accepted project management knowledge areas: integration, scope, time, cost, quality, human resource, communication, risk and procurement and contract management.
It suggests the involvement of a range of personnel with a variety of roles: project sponsor, steering committee, project owner, advisory group, project manager, subject matter specialists and project team. Not all of these would be required for all projects, with only project sponsor and project manager being mandatory.
The sponsor would hopefully be a senior executive — “executive commitment and support is critical” — and the steering committees draw on a range of stakeholders, including those external to the department.
Minimum size for application of the framework would be projects with a three-week duration; anything smaller and the framework’s reporting obligations would outweigh the benefits.
With such small projects, the project blueprint is a modest five-page document. Larger ones require a far greater range of activities, with the largest having as many as 280-plus checkpoints spread across the various roles and responsibilities.
However, the framework is used.
“Ours is very responsive to the needs of the people who are going to use it,” Mudie says. “It’s looking at existing culture and desired outcomes and how people work, and it recognizes that success relies on the people more than the tools and templates.”
She sees the framework document itself as the only “software” a project manager needs.
“My worry is that people will get caught up in the technology; you need to use technology when it’s appropriate, not for its own sake. People quite often think the IT tool is managing the business. IT is a facilitator of the solution, not the solution itself.”
Smith is less jingoistic. “There are other applications that support our work. MS Project, for example, is available and frequently used. However, staff can determine the appropriate scheduling tool for their project with consideration to the project’s complexity, duration and risks.”
There are three types of projects in FaCS: those of a strategic nature, those that relate to budget funding and those that are regarded as branch-specific projects. In 2003–04, the PMIO reported on about 80 projects. Of these, six are IT-related. In addition, there is a number of branch projects where reporting to the departmental executive was not required. However, the department has mandated that all projects are project managed using FaCS tools, templates and processes.
Projects are undertaken in FaCS’s national office in Canberra, although many have had input from the state and territory network. The projects deal predominantly with policy development and implementation, and some with community issues such as community grants et cetera.
“The support that we provide to project managers varies,” Smith says. “Some projects require an intensive facilitation service (particularly where the project involves more than one agency), some require training in project management processes and some require assistance with completing documentation or the PMIO simply reviewing or offering comments on their documentation.”
One important benefit claimed for the framework is its ability to identify when a project might be going off the rails.
“I think project management is a really good tool to decide when you cut and run,” Mudie advises. “That allows you to make really good business decisions. Especially if you’re making high-level decisions, you need to get something that makes sense and is easy to read. Executives get heaps of stuff past their desk, and you need something that captures succinctly what the situation is — ‘Have we got a problem here?’, ‘Have we got a stop sign on this?’”
While not sure of how many projects have been given a “kill” notice, Mudie suggests that the information the PMIO provides to the executive groups allows them to better monitor projects. “The ultimate responsibility [to kill a project] lies with the secretary. But he can be informed by much better information.”
One project currently running under the PMF is the development of FaCS’s electronic document management system (EDMS). In a report issued last year, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) criticized government departments, including FaCS, for poor record keeping, suggesting that failures in this area exposed agencies to the risk that important data would not be captured and that records might be released or disposed of without proper authorization.
FaCS’s EDMS was initiated prior to the ANAO report, with Inform Systems’ iManage eventually chosen as preferred supplier. The EDMS project will eventually deliver the document management solution rolled out to up to 300 staff, as well as change management, training and ongoing support to all FaCS staff.
Kerrie Van Schieveen, project manager for the EDMS, says the PMF, while not specifically an IT project management framework, has been useful for the general management of the project, particularly planning and reporting. “The templates are very useful, several of which are key documents for the EDMS project. The issues register, for example, is used daily, particularly for the identification and escalation of issues to other areas of the branch as well as our external vendor.
“For an IT project, the framework has proven useful when used in coordination with general systems analysis and design methodologies.”
She says the framework is “very effective and efficient and easy to use”.
“While some of the documentation is time consuming to complete, it has been particularly useful in providing necessary information to the project steering committee.”
Mudie sees development of the framework as a work in progress, with the potential to migrate to other departments. She says the PMIO has been “inundated with requests [for information]”.
“We have people approaching the project management office and saying: ‘We have this new initiative, can you come and visit us and talk it through.’
“I still think there’s an element of stovepipe mentality in government. We want to see where there are synergies across departments and how we can work together to get joint and better outcomes.”
That leads to the concept of a single office monitoring and managing all government projects. While that might not exactly be on the cards, Mudie sees a version of it as a distinct possibility. “Certainly there’s a role for centralized reporting, if not for centralized monitoring.
“I would suggest that Cabinet would like an understanding of the decisions it has made in terms of funding projects across the Commonwealth, how well they’re doing. And that’s something the project integration office could do.”
At the very least, a consistent and more broadly implemented approach to project management would give departments more flexibility and mobility of those staff with an understanding of the field, allowing them to be moved between departments more readily, Mudie believes. Van Schieveen is a case in point, with project management experience in the Australian Taxation Office before moving across to FaCS and the EDMS project.
“[The framework] means you can identify who your key stakeholders are — see where the crossovers are with other parts of the department or with other departments, which is great.
“It also allows you to identify and clearly articulate what outcomes you are expecting to achieve, and how you’re going to measure them. I think one thing that probably has changed reasonably significantly is the need to be really clear on what we’re measuring, which I think is really important in terms of accountability to the Australian public and to government.
“I think there’s a perception within the Australian public that the public service is inefficient and doesn’t do things well. But I actually challenge how many private sector organizations actually have the span of responsibilities and the responsibility for budgets the way public servants do. And I don’t think that that’s really well recognized.
“I’ve seen incredible waste in private sector businesses. I think there’s an accountability in the public sector that isn’t necessarily as strong in the private sector.”
If the PMF is adding some method to that accountability, and increasing the pool of experienced project managers, then it serves a very useful purpose indeed.
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