Maintaining oversight with reduced staff: can IT help ?

I used to be a project manager in government. There were many times that I had about 70 projects in the works, and all in different stages. Some of these projects were really struggling. In the government world, a floundering project meant that the community just couldn’t get it going for any number of reasons. This also meant that the funding for the project was not getting spent as our federal funder would like.

My natural reaction to these projects? Give them the bulk of my attention to get them moving. But what about my other projects? Well, the sad fact was, if I did not receive new correspondence, e-mails or documents from them, I would lose track of what was happening, and maybe even miss a compliance task. Like most agencies, we had special databases to track our usage of federal funds and to count the benefits of the investment of our funds.

Then, it happened. One of my colleagues forgot a very important compliance task. The result: we had to PAY BACK the federal government for the funding we had spent on a project.

The problem with all of this goes back to the lack of integration. Our databases only had places to record WHEN things happen. There was no way to ensure that things DID happen. No reminders to staff that they hadn’t received documents or missed key tasks. And no way for managers to keep track of all the projects of their five-plus staff members.

The good news is that software can help. I picked document management with workflow to fix the problem and deal with less staff than we needed. The integrated software – document management and the database – created an automated workflow when a new data record was created. Throughout the project, it automatically sent the right people e-mail notifications – if there was a deadline coming up, if documents were missing, etc. And, if I forgot something, workflows would escalate reminders to my manager. That way, if one person misses a task, thire manager knows about it and can act on it. This was a much better strategy than me creating endless e-mail and calendar reminders.

If you’re looking for a more simple way to explain this, here’s how I approach it. Your job is to start a project by entering data and finish it without committing any errors. Workflow is the state-of-the-art, fool-proof bridge to make this happen. In other words, workflows automate the “oversight” in data systems. Pairing these systems with document management and its workflows is the only way to address the needs of government projects that require a mix of data, documents and oversight.

I think it may be the only way to survive the new, reduced government that we have been forced to create in these economic times. Sadly, we may be understaffed for several years, but we know that the workload won’t diminish. I believe that the technology is the only way to ensure our funders will be satisfied with our oversight while we do the hard work of meeting our constituents’ needs.

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Jaime Gracia

Having experienced similar situations from the other side of the fence (industry), I am curious as to the projects you mention Terri. What PM deliverables were associated with these projects? Did you not have any contractors or were these all internal projects? Did the contracts have program management deliverables?

Software and technology will help tremendously. However, effective project management focuses on leadership and communications. Without these two central pillars, no software will help. Increased communications and workflow are a start, but federal project managers must do a better job of leading from the front.

I have worked with many federal PMs who expect their contractors to do all the coordinating and updating, then have a debrief to let them know what is going on. This clearly is not working. Weekly reports are good, but at least status updates via meetings, webex, etc. to discuss integrated portfolios and milestone status are a great tool for keeping things on track, and also helping with risk management to avoid schedule delays or cost overruns.

Ensuring things happen takes proactive oversight, and cannot be delegated through technology. Business process comes first, then helping leverage the technology to be an effective program manager.

Terri Jones

Our projects were good old-fashioned community development from senior centers to sewage treatment with all the required compliance to meet our federal funding contracts. Our technology did follow our business processes once we had technology. Before that, we relied on people’s memories and expertise. Sadly that failed us at times.

We ultimately bought OnBase from Hyland Software and used workflow automation to help our staff keep on top of compliance and timeliness requirements.