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Why Are So Many Government Projects Late and Over Budget?

Ironically, it can happen because managers skip steps in an effort to go faster.

People inside Austin's new public library.
To stay on schedule, Austin skipped reviews while building its new central library.
(Flickr/Austin Public Library)
State and local projects -- whether setting up a new child care program or building a bridge -- often go overtime or over budget. Or they come in on time and on budget, but fail to deliver the promised outcomes. 

Do we have governments full of inept project managers? Not by a long shot, 

but it’s relatively common to find those who haven’t been trained effectively for the job. “Based on our research,” says Murat Bicak, senior vice president of strategy for the Project Management Institute, “a lot of project managers are accidental project managers.” 

In a number of cases, employees come up through the ranks as engineers or technicians, and when a new project comes along, they are suddenly elevated -- sometimes with little additional pay -- to the role of project manager. There’s no training provided.

Making sure there is the right amount of experience at the project director level is crucial. This is true for both big and small projects. “You could have 10 small projects,” says Stephanie Dedmon, deputy CIO of Tennessee, “and if they are not managed well, you could still lose a lot [of money].”

But even the best-trained project managers frequently come up against challenges that are out of their hands. Corrie Stokes, Austin’s city auditor, says that “even if we had an army of the best project managers, the city often skips design reviews.” Austin protocols require that reviews of the progress of projects be conducted at 30, 60 and 90 percent of completion. But those reviews are often skipped, in part to keep a project on time. When that happens, major problems can appear later on.

One such project, according to Stokes, was the installation of a fire suppression device in the city’s central library. “Very late in the project, they had to retrofit it when they realized they didn’t have access to electricity close enough to the device.” In other words, no one made sure there was a place to plug the thing in.

How does this happen? Sometimes, Stokes says, “we are so focused on not having delays that we haven’t taken  the time to keep things working along the line.” 

The focus on avoiding delays and cost overruns is widespread. “Budget conversations can become more important than the actual projects,” Bicak says. 

Project managers can better oversee a project when they can work with clear-cut procedures intended to improve chances of success. Dallas City Auditor Craig Kinton and his team wrote that in one project, “Public Works did not consistently follow processes designed to contain costs and ensure the quality of capital projects.” According to Kinton’s team, “If Public Works bypasses its quality management process, the city may pay for the decision in avoidable project cost increases.” In this case, many of the change estimates, and accompanying cost increases,  reviewed for the construction of a new central library stemmed from missing, unclear or conflicting items in the designs that a review might have caught.

One of the most important elements in a project’s design comes at the very outset, when careful review and deliberation make it less likely that project managers will run into snags. According to Amy Delcomyn, deputy chief operating officer with the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, her state, which has little fiscal wiggle room, can’t afford surprises. So Illinois is making efforts to involve all the participants in a project from its genesis. “That makes for less scope creep,” she says. “It shortens timelines. It reduces overspend. And it lowers the number of defects.”

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