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Evidence-Building Capacity Important for Effectively Implementing New Law on Program Management

Congress quietly passed a law in 2016 that aims to improve program management practices across government agencies. While good program management seems like a simple concept, in practice, the suite of federal laws, regulations, and policies for contracting can limit effective implementation of programs and stewardship of taxpayer resources. By one estimate, 10 percent of every dollar spent is wasted on poor project performance across both the private and public sectors.

Program management is the coordinated application of general and specialized knowledge, skills, expertise, and practices to a program for effective implementation. Successful program management helps ensure that programs meet their goals on time and within budget.

If implemented successfully, the law could support government’s ability to effectively engage in evidence-based policymaking.

What is the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act and how will agencies implement it?

Congress passed the bipartisan Program Management Improvement Accountability Act (PMIAA) in December 2016. It seeks to formalize the practice of program management in government by:

  • Creating a project management job series to establish a trained workforce.
  • Directing the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop program management standards across the federal government and conduct annual reviews.
  • Requiring federal agencies to designate Program Management Improvement Officers to strengthen program management capabilities.
  • Establishing a Program Management Policy Council to share best practices in program management.

In June, the White House’s OMB issued guidance for federal agencies about what the new law means and how to implement it. OMB’s guidance includes a series of steps to implement the law’s provisions over the next four years, and lists 15 standards agencies should include in their program management policies and procedures. According to OMB, agencies will initially focus on contracting activities, excluding information technology.

How does program management relate to evidence-based policymaking?

To assure programs are well-managed, federal managers can use evidence to inform decisions about program management. The Government Accountability Office concluded in 2017 that 54 percent of surveyed federal managers who had access to program evaluations reported the evidence was substantially used for improving program management.

OMB’s guidance to agencies includes evidence-building activities as part of the new standards for program management areas such as: program evaluation, performance management, process improvement, and strategic planning. To meet OMB’s standards, federal agencies will need to develop and coordinate their evidence-building capacities. This includes identifying what data to collect, gathering data, conducting analysis, and compiling and disseminating results.

How is a Program Management Improvement Officer related to a Chief Evaluation Officer?  

The U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking’s unanimous findings in 2017 concluded that the establishment of chief evaluation officers is key to government’s capacity to produce and use evidence.  Establishing chief evaluation officers in government would encourage senior leaders to engage in the evidence-building activities, with a co-benefit for program managers gaining access to the information they need.

The PMIAA established a different role, intended to focus on program management. While related, chief evaluation officers and the new program management improvement officers have different purposes and roles, but each position can support and enhance the other.  For example, chief evaluation officers can help program management improvement officers by:

  • Creating learning agendas to encourage researchers to gather answers to critical questions for program outcomes, processes, and impacts.
  • Helping federal program managers build the skills necessary to understand and use evidence when developing strategic plans to accomplish program objectives.
  • Improving access to evidence by establishing consistent processes for building and using agency information.
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Program Management Improvement Officer vs. Chief Evaluation Officer

 Program Management
Improvement Officer

Chief Evaluation Officer
Purpose Strengthen program/project management capacity.Strengthen program evaluation and policy research capacity.
Policies Establish agency-specific policies on program/project management.Establish department-wide policies on evaluation and research.
Coordination Coordinate reviews of agency programs and portfolios as part of the agency's annual strategic review process.Coordinate evaluation and research activities.
Skill-building Establish human capital strategies to improve capacity for program/project management.Establish human capital strategies to improve capacity for program evaluation.
Collaboration Collaborate with other management functions and program offices to oversee and improve program/project management.Collaborate with other evidence-building functions within federal departments.
Additional Functions Serve on the Program Management Policy Council to share best practices in federal program/project management.Develop learning agendas to identify priorities for departmental program evaluation and policy research.

Conversely, program management improvement officers can help chief evaluation officers by strengthening the project management skills of staff who oversee contracts in support of evidence building. Ideally, for federal agencies to efficiently meet program goals, program management improvement officers and chief evaluation officers will work together in leveraging evidence to improve federal programs.