4 keys to better program performance

Kim Hayes of the Ambit Group explains the four ways agencies need to work with contractors for a successful program.

Performance. It’s a word we associate more with athletic prowess than government programs, though it’s not for lack of trying.

Every year there’s a new mandate or a new initiative that aims to improve the performance of government programs – from the 25-Point Implementation Plan to the TechStat initiative, from the IT Dashboard to the CIO Council’s IT best practices portal.

In one recent GAO report, the government surveyed seven successful IT programs to identify nine critical success factors.

But in all of these initiatives, one voice has been missing from the discussion: the contractors’.

Here are four areas where agencies can get the best performance out of their contractor partnerships and ultimately out of their programs: 

Prioritization according to the context of the project and agency needs, rather than the whims of program managers, agency executives, or the contractor’s finances.

This is not to suggest that those managing programs don’t have the best intentions for success. However, very often these intentions are mismatched or misdirected based on past experiences irrelevant to the current context.

For example, a program manager who previously directed a transition of the agency’s email to the cloud may not approach a cloud migration of the agency’s core ERP system with appropriate caution. To ensure alignment, contractors and government agencies need to jointly understand the ultimate needs of the mission, not just the particular technical requirements of the current implementation.

Collaboration between contractors and end-users that is ongoing and proactive, rather than driven by moments of crisis.

“No news is good news” doesn’t cut it when managing a government program. Although nearly every management study during the last 50 years indicates collaboration is the key to program success, there are still powerful forces keeping contractors and government managers from interacting.

After all, contractors don’t want to show their government clients every technical or cultural hurdle because it might limit requirements for future work. And government managers don’t want to have to hand-hold contractors through the entire process; if they wanted to do that, they wouldn’t have hired contractors in the first place.

Both of these are valid points, but successful government program management is a happy balance between independence and engagement.

Support from top executives at the contractor and agency level, as well as sufficient funding and deployment of internal resources to get the job done.

Nothing is worse than working on a project that leadership is skeptical of, but this is the environment in which many federal managers find themselves, day in and day out.

To a certain extent, this is inevitable in a system that installs new leadership every four to eight years. But skepticism can be overcome by ensuring projects have clear goals, explicit timelines, and meaningful deliverables.

Nothing communicates the value of a project better than realistically achieved milestones. A prime example of this focus is the CIO Council’s emphasis on transitioning federal programs to an agile development schedule, better aiding in the demonstration of incremental value. 

Stability in the composition of teams, with very little turnover so that positive relationships can be built, ensuring knowledge and organizational momentum is maintained.

Agencies can’t do anything about the program manager who decides to quit and take up scuba diving, but they can manage internal resources more carefully to keep teams intact from inception to delivery.

These efforts may run up against internal expectations of promotion or assignment duration, but stability is more important than most realize.

In The Innovator’s Solution, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen shares a story of why a multi-million dollar toy manufacturer had to outsource its design to another firm: not because it didn’t have the internal talent, but because the lifecycle of successful toy development exceeded the average management promotion cycle. The result: internal managers wouldn’t take risks on new projects that likely held no rewards for them.

Aligning the assignment timelines of your team with that of their programs is an important factor in preserving institutional knowledge and encouraging innovation.

Every year, the federal government introduces new legislation or new policies and procedures with the intention of correcting wasteful spending.  Each year, it contracts $320 billion for services. To succeed in improving the performance of these projects, federal managers need to collaborate with contractors to manage every stage of the process, tossing away old prejudices and preconceptions and instead collaboratively focusing on the vital mission at hand.

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