Opinion: Professional project managers critical to e-government success

Governments around the world are moving some or all of their services into an online environment. In some cases this takes the form of automating existing services, in others it opens the way to significant public service reform. In cases where integration and rethinking of services is a fundamental part of the e-government initiative, professional project managers can play a key role.

However, the outsourcing of technology and information services during the 90’s and the “projectization” of work means that in many government bodies, professional project managers are very few and far between. In many jurisdictions, the term project manager has taken on an almost clerical or administrative role. This article provides insights into the Government of Canada’s five year Government On-Line (GOL) initiative and the types of project managers that are necessary to move this kind of project along.

Canada’s e-government initiative

Canada announced its (GOL) goal in the 1999 Speech from the Throne “to be known around the world as the government most connected to its citizens, with Canadians able to access all government information and services on-line at the time and place of their choosing”.

It was one of the few times that federal departments were encouraged (in fact, mandated) to work together to deliver services; to change their focus and perspectives regarding citizens; and to share systems and funds.

The GOL initiative began with a focus on putting off-line services on-line. But, this quickly advanced into service and business transformation and seamless delivery to citizens. And increased synergistic benefits from integration and interoperability were within grasp.

E-government morphed into using technology for better government, and technology became the catalyst and conduit for better government image; citizen security and protection; and modernization and reform of delivery of 21st century public services.

During the few years of operations, there have been significant advances in modernization and transformation of public services. In addition, there has been external recognition of the initiative. The Government of Canada has been ranked No. 1 in the world for four years in a row and it is recognized for its phenomenal success in e-government.

However, the full potential of e-government is still largely untapped even in this instance. It needs the support and drive from both public and private sector leaders to envision the opportunities and it needs professional project managers to transform the opportunities to reality.

E-government progress

The Government of Canada recognizes the need for advanced project managers as do the universities and professional development centers – there are many programs that teach and certify the project management tools. But, it is also common knowledge that the organizational capacity is weak, perhaps even non-existent, especially if the examination is limited to the public service where the technology support and management of systems has been largely devolved to the private sector.

The outsourcing of these tasks permanently weakened the federal project management capacity. And possibility, the private sector has been either too stretched or too removed to address this requirement fully. So, we quickly conclude that project managers capable of handling the Government of Canada’s e-government solutions are few and far between.

Despite this shortage, Canada’s initiative has been successful nationally and recognized internationally. However, it has cost organizations and people pain, time, angst and money. E-government projects and solutions suffer as do all systems projects from the ‘bad rap’ of being perpetually late, over budget and not fit for use.

The e-government success within Canada was realized because of the pure interest and the raw energy of a few keen individuals. The opportunities could have been so ripe for delivery and improvement that any ‘push from the centre’ combined with some dynamic individuals was enough to initiate the GOL direction, and get us to this stage.

It is clear however that moving to the next level is not sustainable with only interest, keenness, energy, and brute force. The organizational difficulties, human opposition and disincentives are so great; that this next plateau will only be reached if we find the key driver – that agent that can step up to the task and bring the organizations, policies, politics, agendas and people together. Professional project managers can fill this ‘weak spot’ to find the ‘sweet spot’ where e-government can flourish and jump the limitations of boundaries, history and inertia.

Why is e-government so dependent upon project manager skills?

Citizen centric e-government demands that departments and agencies work together to display a seamless front to the citizen. The citizen does not need to know the extent of the ‘Florida Chad’ behind the Web site. These machinations should be opaque.

Responding to citizen interests of health, security, benefit programs, government information, and jobs requires e-government integration.

The citizen cannot know the right federal department to contact nor can he know how to proceed from department to department. Lack of integration is anathema in the e-government world. Advances to date have been incremental and the benefits of continuing incrementalism are diminishing. Now, a significant kick-start or a frame breaking experience is required to advance to the next step of integration and interoperability, even if only conceptually.

And, since no organization, processes or structures exist to ‘virtually’ blend departments and agencies, a professional project manager is the one person who can be dedicated to the proposition of bringing the organizations together. All others are committed to their own interests and the ultimate preponderance of one organization over the other – this does not apply to the professional project manager.

His (or her) interest and success is dependant upon getting those participants to realize a benefit from the merger. He is able to amass the visions of what can be considered; the tools and knowledge needed to move forward; and the experience to manage. And, manage within the context of unlimited technology, complex organizational and political life, and restricted resources, time and human capital.

The professional project manager recognizes that this ‘sweet spot’ is not one based on precise ‘up-front’ definitions of outcomes. Instead, it is based on definitions that will be revealed and emerged as they are released by the collaborative efforts of the people working within the organizations. The professional project manager must vigilantly cope with a world of unrealistic specificity with respect to resource requirements and solutions to problems that have never been addressed.

The blending of ‘virtual’ organizations to achieve common solutions, the lack of a structure to manage this integration, the disparate IM/IT maturity levels across all departments, and the absence of a single ‘boss’ is where the project manager can flourish.

The necessary skill sets for professional project managers…

Within the Government of Canada and in most other industries, every activity, process and initiative is becoming ‘projectized’ and the project management nomenclature applied indiscriminately. This is both good and bad.

It is good in that organizations and executives are now realizing the difficult and challenging job of trying to deliver an unknown solution within the confines of time and money for competing stakeholders and various bosses.

It is bad as now many activities from organizing the annual Christmas party to reporting the status of an account are erroneously labeled as project management, and this demeans and understates the complexity, skill set and responsibilities of a ‘real’ project manager capable of driving forward the solution and influencing the outcome.

In many jurisdictions, the term project manager is comparable to coordinator and seen as an available stepping stone for capable administrative or clerical people.

E-government requires the ‘honest broker’ – it needs one person to bring the disparate organizations, business processes, agendas, cultures and people together to create an harmonious and workable solution. And this solution is not known in advance – the effort of going on the ‘ride’ is as important to the outcome as the original intent.

Project managers must be respected and be influential at the executive table. A professional project manager must have all the tools of the project management professional as well as business acumen, and knowledge of the business environment within which they operate.

They must be able to communicate with and understand the interests of their many stakeholders and organizations. They must have a professional designation and certifications that are recognized in the community. And, they must have accumulated growth experience and a track record in managing numerous, complex, and diverse projects.

This is what creates a professional project manager – one that goes beyond the ‘scope, time and cost’ iron triangle to one working within a complex, chaotic and often ethereal environment. They need to recognize that the outcomes and products emerge and result from the effort of compromise.

They need to manage and control those boundless expectation drivers and balance disproportional influences. They need to clear the way for idea and solution creation, and yet be encircled by organizational and bureaucratic structures and set practices.

In short, e-government initiatives have the capacity to reform government service delivery through complex projects that require professional project managers to be successful. Professional Project Managers need to be (to paraphrase Bill Clinton in his book “My Life” as the leadership strengths to make policies that I think are equally relevant to Professional Project Managers):

– Smart enough to know;
– Strong enough to do; and
– Sure enough to lead.

And just as important, they have to be excited about working within the Government of Canada, and interested in making a difference in modernizing and delivering 21st century public services.

Shauneen Furlong is an independent consultant who lectures on e-government and project management with the University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, and around the world. She has recent senior executive level and management experience in a number of Government of Canada central agencies and departments over a period of 20 years, most recently Executive Director, Government On-Line, Government of Canada. She is a registered senior consultant with Gov3 (Government for the Third Millennium), member of an international research network with the University of Westminster in London, England, and on the Program Review Board for the International eGovernment Conference and International Conference on Digital Society. She was awarded a 2007 IBM Fellowship; is a Project Manager Professional (PMP); and a PhD Candidate in Computer Science.

Shauneen can be contacted at SFurlong@territorialcommunications.com

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