Risk
May 7, 2012

Herding cats: Project management in the public service

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements. In more plain language, project management is herding a bunch of cats into the corner of a round room in the hope that you will be able to deliver something close to what was asked for.

So what makes up a project and what is involved in “doing project management?” People usually think of construction or information technology (IT) examples when talking about projects. In the public sector human resource (HR), process improvement and regulatory projects are just as prevalent.

First of all, projects have a beginning, middle and an end and involve initiating, planning, executing, monitoring/controlling and closing the various aspects of the project. As for the specific “things” that can be managed, typical activities are related to integration, scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communications, risk and procurement.

Risk and reward

Risk management is a critical task for everyone. Risks occur everywhere, every day, with both positive and negative outcomes. Project risk management must entail the ongoing identification, analysis and monitoring of future events such that the impact is favorable.

Government is responsible for the stewardship of resources and deliverables (programs and services) to the public and stakeholders, and this stewardship can be improved by employing project management processes and tools. Proper project governance that identifies roles, responsibilities and success factors will provide cost containment and contribute to on-time delivery.

Formal project management processes also establish systems of communication between all parties, including project team members and stakeholders. The communication of project scope and project progress through established channels is a contributor to the delivery of successful results.

The “p” factor

In the public sector, timeline management can be more challenging given that projects can and will be effected by legislative calendars and the dropping of an election writ. As well, “big P” politics from political party platforms and government commitments can influence the direction, scope and timing of projects. “Small P” politics related to individual and group stakeholders may have an impact because of the frequent need of government to have stakeholder input and support for effective program design and delivery. As a result, internal and external stakeholder engagement tends to be more extensive and intensive for the public service than other sectors of the economy.

Private sector projects have their success measured primarily by the facets of “on time, on budget and within scope” as defined by the project plans. These also exist in the public sector, but additional measures have arisen to gauge the performance of public sector projects. Project efficiency (on time and to spec), project effectiveness (doing the right thing) and safety (personal, property, informational) are becoming key measures.

Lessons learned

Coming from diverse backgrounds outside government has allowed us to bring a wide variety of experiences to the table and provide the comparator for what has been experienced inside the public service.

In summary, we have learned the following:

  • Effective and regular communication must occur;
  • Risk management in a risk-averse public service is difficult because of the perception that taking any risks can be career-limiting;
  • Expectation management is hard and is a key part of a successful project; and
  • Milestones sometimes don’t seem to mean much because of the constant change in circumstances.

Communications, expectation management, and risk management are all critical pieces of project management and life as well. Telling someone what’s going on, what’s expected of them and making sure that bad things don’t happen – sounds like being a parent! While we may sometimes feel that the earth is shifting out of control under our feet, making the best use of the tools available will allow us to plan and execute successful projects while still dealing with the idiosyncrasies of the public service.

 

Tom Paton is the project manager of online services in the Competitiveness & Strategy Division of Enterprise Saskatchewan. Robert Warnock is a culture and heritage analyst with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport. Both joined the Saskatchewan government in the past five years.

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