VA solves project management woes through competency models

Stephen Warren, principal deputy CIO, Department of Veterans Affairs

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

When the Veterans Affairs Department decided to renovate its oversight of technology projects, officials found two things: a shortage of trained people in critical management skills, and a wide gap in how busy employees were in managing the projects.

Stephen Warren, VA’s principal deputy assistant secretary in the office of information and technology and principal deputy chief information officer, said the solution to both of these problems turned out to be fairly simple.

Warren said employees now sit in competency models where they move from project-to-project based on the program’s needs at the time. After they are finished, they go back to the competency pool and are assigned to the next project that needs their expertise or receive training.

“We are doing dynamic allocation of resources, people and dollars,” he said. “We essentially spent a year wrestling with the old way against the Program Management Accountability System (PMAS). What we found was, we were not getting full value for the people; some folks were being used 10 percent and some folks were being used 200 percent. It was not fair to either side. We get them into a pool and find a balance of when they actually need to be applied and utilized and when they are not, make sure we are training them and make sure they have the opportunity to work on their quality skills and performance skills.”

Each pool of experts has a leader and that person is responsible for making sure the employees are receiving training.

Warren said under this model VA increased the number of projects it was working on by 60 percent.

“That was showing our rough wastage of people sitting in a program executive office structure versus a competency model,” he said.

Warren said VA has about 450 employees in the competency pools providing expertise in everything from master scheduling to project management to developers and integrators.

“Any skill set required to deliver a product that we made a commitment to, those individuals run out of pool structure,” he said.

Warren said VA supplements the pool with contract services. VA buys the services on an as needed basis.

To create these pools, VA had to retrain and hire new employees.

Warren said VA also spent a lot of time making sure the pool leaders were highly qualified.

“The leadership or managers have one priority, make sure the individuals on the team were fully qualified to do work that the project team needed,” he said. “There’s a major challenge you run in on project teams, the project team is focused on outcome, outcome and outcome and training always seems to take the back seat. We have an organization whose leadership responsibility is to make sure the staff receives training, counseling in how you do this. We think we’ve found a good blend of what you need to put in place to get a motivated, qualified workforce that is driven to outcomes.”

Warren added VA believes this approach is working. He estimated VA’s turnover rate among its IT workforce is 8 percent, while the private sector is around 15 percent and other federal agencies around 9-to-10 percent.

As for PMAS itself, Warren said projects now are meeting 80 percent of their milestones, up from 35 percent two-and-a-half years ago.

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