Why Do So Many Governments Miss Their Project Deadlines?

Project delays are a huge problem. “Sourcing teams” could be one solution.
May 2018
The first leg of New York City's Second Avenue subway line was completed 88 years after its initial approval. (AP)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

The Second Avenue line of New York City’s famed subway system was approved by the city’s Board of Transportation in September 1929. The estimated cost was $100 million. The first leg of this ambitious project was passenger-ready on Jan. 1, 2017. The estimated cost of the whole thing is $17 billion.

This may be the king of all delayed projects -- short of efforts to achieve peace on earth. But as residents of most large cities can tell you, project delays are not exactly big news, even if they are a regular feature in the local press. To be sure, some of these delays are unavoidable. But many are self-inflicted wounds.

Delays in the completion of IT projects, for instance, are a commonality. Take, for example, the new driver’s license and identification technology system at the Kansas Department of Revenue (KDOR). Known as KanLicense, it was slated to be finished by early 2012, but the completion date was shoved back to January 2018. Then an announcement was made that the project was being delayed once again for an uncertain period of time.

Although KDOR representatives were unwilling to comment on the reasons for delays, one local newspaper, The Garden City Telegram, reported that “KanLicense has been rife with difficulties and delays.” A recent legislative audit, which pointed to holdups in building and testing the system, raised red flags about its security. One of the issues with the Kansas project was that its scope continued to change, a surefire way to guarantee a project won’t be completed on time.

A substance abuse pilot program in Virginia, involving the use of medication-assisted treatment for alcoholism, was funded at $100,000 for fiscal 2017. The program lagged behind its apportionment of resources. Only $28,000 was spent that year. A January 2018 report by Virginia’s budget office pointed a finger at the cause. “The delay in hiring of program staff was the biggest challenge for program start up.”

Delays in work on New York City’s parks have been a “source of enormous frustration for the city council,” according to Councilman Mark Levine, who chaired the parks committee for the last four years. For example, it takes up to three years for the parks department to complete construction of a $3 million comfort station. The cause, as Levine sees it, is partially an accumulation of generations of added steps in the procurement process to avoid corruption, get the best prices possible and make sure the contract reflects the city’s diverse population. The requirements, he says, “are all motivated by worthy intentions, but the accumulation is a Rube Goldberg-like flow chart.”

This is not unlike issues with civil service systems, which are established to avoid nepotism and discrimination. They certainly can help avoid these kinds of issues, but when the rules become too difficult to fulfill without delays, there’s an unfortunate trade-off.

Clearly, one of the biggest areas in which delays are epidemic is in governmental procurement. According to Dugan Petty, a senior fellow for the Center for Digital Government at Governing’s parent company, e.Republic, there are a number of reasons for this. Procurements can be slowed by an overabundance of burdensome rules, as with the New York City parks, but there are sometimes even simpler reasons. For instance, with the number of upcoming retirements, Petty says that thinned-out staff “are just not going to be able to run the process at optimal speed.”

Jorge A. Lynch, an internationally known procurement adviser, offers some of the most significant reasons for delayed procurements: lags in preparing technical specifications; failure to start the procurement process on time; extension of bid or proposal submission date; holdups in starting or finishing the evaluation process; and delays in the approval process and in contract negotiation. “The duration of contract negotiations is beyond the control of the procuring entity,” Lynch advises, “so it should be conservatively determined during procurement planning and scheduling.”

Petty sees another solution in “sourcing teams,” which bring all the major players into the effort at the outset of the procurement. Massachusetts has long used the approach. It draws together members from the executive branch, as well as municipalities that use statewide contracts. These groups meet regularly to ensure the contract is running smoothly for the duration of the project.

Curiously, many projects that appear to be missing deadlines may actually be on schedule or moving ahead in reasonable time. They may be victims of a phenomenon called optimism bias. “It’s the risk we face when we assume that something that goes wrong will not go wrong for us,” says Kiron Bondale, a consultant in the project management field. “A lot of decision-makers on projects tend to see the world through rose-colored glasses.”