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A Bridge to Enterprise Project Management, Part 1


PM and Government Projects
Six ways that public sector projects differ from private sector projects.

"The purpose of government is to manage the projects that no one else wants," might not be a civics text's definition of government, but there aren't many public sector project managers who would take issue with it.  Can government projects be better managed?  They can, but isn't that true of any organization's projects?  The more interesting question, and a favorite of government's critics, is whether public sector projects can be managed like private sector projects.  The basic principles of project management – planning, control, tracking, leadership and so forth – apply to all projects, but as the following points explain, there are sound reasons why government projects can not, and should not, be managed like those in the private sector

  1. Risk and One-Year Budget Cycles
    Government projects are, for the most part, funded through annual budget cycles.  This is generally not a problem for public sector projects in IT, facilities management, community services, and other projects that can be completed in less than a year.  Single-year budgeting, however, can have adverse impacts on multi-year projects, particularly capital "brick and mortar" projects like those found in public works, urban redevelopment and environmental restoration.  Costs rise over time, political priorities change with new administrations, revenue streams run dry, bond markets fluctuate, and over time the project's manager can move on to other projects or retirement.  These are a few of the risks associated with the short-term budgeting of long-term projects and provide a few examples of why public sector PMs need a different set of risk management skills than their counterparts in the private sector.  
  2. Political Priorities
    "New visions," "a better tomorrow," and "time for change" are standard political themes regardless of political affiliation.  Elections bring new leaders, new ideas and new priorities, particularly at the local level where constituents can vote, directly or indirectly, on projects that are literally outside their doors.  At state and federal levels, new administrations develop new policies and appoint new agency managers to carry them out.  Political change at the state and federal levels may not have the immediacy of local government, but all political change trickles down to projects eventually.  Unlike their private sector counterparts, the government's project managers need to be prepared for change with every election.
  3. High Visibility Projects
    What happens in the private sector usually remains in the private sector, but in the public sector even the most benign project can be a candidate for front-page news.  The press, public opinion, oversight committees, checks and balances, and the public record put government projects in a fishbowl of scrutiny, which can place their project managers in the difficult position of having to choose between what is right and what looks right.  Public sector project managers are anonymous when projects run smoothly, but "on point" when problems arise.  Unfortunately, there is a certain thanklessness that permeates governmental projects and speaks directly to the personal strength that a public sector project manager needs to weather a lack of gratitude when things go right and to face the cameras when things go wrong.
  4. Contract Management
    Government projects of significant scope are contracted out to consultants, specialists and firms in the private sector.  This raises the bar for a public sector project manager's contract management skills.  A single project can require contract preparation, bid management, work review and issues management involving several individuals, departments and contractors, none of which report to, or necessarily owe allegiance to, the project manager.  This, in turn, calls for the person at the center of the project to be as much of a diplomat as a project manager.   Public sector contracts themselves are locked into fixed prices for fixed work, a characteristic that calls for additional care in defining scope of work at the front-end and cost management and change control in the middle.  Factors such as these require a great deal of foresight and flexibility, often while the inertia of bureaucracy pulls in the opposite direction.
  5. Legal Risks
    For members of the public concerned about government regulations, it helps to remember that the entities most affected by regulations are governments themselves.  One regulatory conundrum is that an action that a private sector project manager would consider best practices can be against the law in the public sector.
    New Orleans Confronts
Decisions Made in 1957
    The burden of lawsuits adds chilling dimension to government projects.  As this PM Tip Sheet is being written, the Army Corps of Engineers is defending itself from liability associated with the damage caused by 2005's Hurricane Katrina.   Billions are at stake, but this amount pales in comparison to the hundreds of billions being contested in tens of thousands of lawsuits against federal, state and local governments, year-after-year.  In litigation, "government" is synonymous with "deep pockets."  Bid awards, projects stalled in development, and mishaps tied to projects completed long ago provide a few examples of areas of legal risk beyond anything imaginable in the private sector.  The Army Corps of Engineers had argued that federal law provided immunity from Katrina lawsuits (sovereign immunity), but flood warnings from engineers that dated back to 1957 provided the legal grounds to proceed with the case.
  6. Emergencies 
    In the spirit of government and the projects that no one else wants, emergencies test public sector projects unlike anything else.  Recessions, natural disasters, epidemics, blackouts, civil unrest, legislative standoffs and even wide-ranging court decisions are among the emergencies that can impact communities, states and, as in the case of international crises, the national government itself.  These are crises of a high magnitude where an anxious public looks rapid solutions which invariably halt important projects in progress.   Meanwhile, the press is ever-ready to raise the visibility of the response, and the one-year budgeting clock keeps ticking for projects delayed by the emergency.  (Find more about reacting to emergencies in the
    Fast-Track Projects PM Tip Sheet.)

This PM Tip Sheet should provide food for thought about the public sector clichés about "one guy digging the hole while four were standing around looking at him."  There are legitimate reasons why public sector projects can not be managed quite like those in the private sector.  In the case of digging a hole, adding more diggers to a hole that isn't particularly large will only slow the job down as the diggers get in each other's way.  In summary, it seems fair to say that project management in the government arena requires project management skills that are neither taught in certificate programs nor experienced in the private sector.

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