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The program manager's view: a recent survey shows the need for succession planning, formal training, and coaching to prepare the next generation for increasingly complex responsibilities.

The federal program management community is a highly visible group that manages more than $2.55 trillion dollars in annual budgets and oversees numerous programs critical to its constituencies. Despite this group's importance, the experiences and insights of program managers have gone largely untapped and undefined.


Galvanized by the desire to close this gap in knowledge, the Council for Excellence in Government (CEG) and U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in partnership with Management Concepts and Robbins Gioia, launched a first-of-its-kind study exploring the perceptions of federal program managers. A CEG-led committee--in place since 2007--agreed to sponsor the survey with the goal of gaining knowledge to advance the field of federal program management. Meeting over the course of a year, the committee designed a survey instrument, guided by OMB's participation and buy-in throughout the effort.

The survey represented an opportunity to gather baseline data on an important group of federal leaders. The primary intention was to learn about program managers' daily experiences, including practices that support their work as well as areas of unmet need. Survey participants were asked about their program's practices, professional development experiences, and suggestions for best positioning the next generation of program managers. Data were also collected regarding respondents' personal demographics.


Management Concepts oversaw the development and administration of the online survey, while OMB identified and invited participation of program managers. In February 2008, OMB requested the unincentivized involvement of 550 people, of which 123 responded, a total response rate of 22 percent. The survey sample was not randomly selected, and like all surveys, responses may not fully represent the intended population-in this case, program managers. Furthermore, results discussed here should be treated as self-reported information rather than "fact."

The sixty-five-item survey was segmented into four main areas, which we discuss individually:

* Clarity of responsibility and accountability

* Program management skills and experience

* Organizational alignment and support

* Execution and results.



The survey uncovered a highly experienced population of program managers, most of whom manage large pro grams of more than $100 million (46 percent). Although lays out seven categories of programs (direct federal, competitive grant, block/formula grant, regulatory, capital assets and service acquisition, credit, and research and development), most of the group surveyed manage competitive grant and direct federal programs (75 percent). Despite their informal title of "program manager," many survey respondents specified they actually hold a "director"-level job title (40 percent), are at the GS-15 grade level or higher (71 percent), and have worked in program management for the federal government for ten or more years (60 percent).

Personal demographic data were also collected, including gender, age, years until retirement, race/ethnicity, and education level. Surprisingly, the gender breakdown was nearly equal: 51 percent of respondents indicated they were male, and 46 percent indicated they were female. The survey response rate for females is slightly higher than the government-wide median, which shows that women constitute 44 percent of the workforce. Majority trends show a highly seasoned group: most survey participants were 54 years of age or older (51 percent), were eligible for retirement within the next five years (55 percent), and carried advanced degrees at the master's or doctoral level (74 percent). Respondents did not represent a diverse group, however, as 73 percent self-identified as Caucasian/White.

Overarching Trends

Clarity of Responsibility and Accountability

The first survey section, covering clarity of responsibility and accountability, asked participants about their program's objectives, including how goals are communicated and measured, and who is involved in assessing the program management activity. Program managers were also asked about the most valuable guidance they receive and what incentives are most motivating.

Forty-four percent of survey respondents indicated that there is either one reporting layer between them and the agency's head or they report directly to that person. Most agreed that their individual performance goals are clear and measurable and that they are held accountable for performance. The overwhelming majority of respondents (84 percent) affirmed that their agency has a formal program performance assessment process and it is conducted through the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), either annually or quarterly. More than three-quarters noted that their program has been evaluated by an outside organization, most often OMB/PART, followed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Frustration with the PART was expressed in many survey comments. One participant noted, "Sustained change takes time and the PART process doesn't come anywhere close to accommodating this reality." Despite skepticism concerning the PART's effectiveness, survey respondents considered independent evaluations and discussions with a manager the most valuable methods for receiving guidance on improving their program's performance.

Program Management Skills and Experience

The second survey section, concerning program management skills and experience, examined the areas of professional preparation, development, and training. Program managers were asked about the value of training they received, certifications they may hold, and types of training they would recommend for the next generation of program managers. Most (94 percent) do not hold certification from a professional organization, such as the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) Program Manager certification or Project Management Institute (PMI) Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.

Some (35 to 50 percent) noted they have never received training in areas that appear critical to program management, including dealing with the media, working with stakeholders or Congress, requirements development, risk management, and budget and financial management. For those who did receive training, the most valuable was training in leadership, program management, budget and financial management, and strategic planning. One respondent pointed out, "I recommend Facilitative Leadership training ... [because] we are responsible for more than we are given actual authority to do."

In their comments, many respondents noted on-the-job experience, strategic planning training, and the "Leadership for a Democratic Society" training conducted by the Federal Executive Institute as helpful developmental experiences. Similarly, when asked, "What type (s) of training would you recommend for your successor and why?" most respondents proposed training in the areas of leadership development, project management, and performance management. These data reinforce a July 2007 Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton report specifying that managers need more workforce management training, specifically in the areas of leadership and performance management.

Organizational Alignment and Support

The third survey section, which examined organizational alignment and support, asked respondents about performance goals, evaluation efforts, and support program managers receive from executives and strategic planning activities. The majority of respondents confirmed that their individual performance goals align with their program's goals. Mirroring the previous response, most also indicated that their program's goals align with their agency's overall goals.

A troubling finding, the majority of program managers do not seek nor receive help from C-level executives. When asked, "To what extent do you seek/receive important support from the CFO, CIO, CHCO and CAO to accomplish the goals of your program?" the largest respondent pools cited "no contribution": 33 percent for chief financial officers (CFOs), 33 percent for chief information officers (CIOs), 45 percent for chief administrative officers (CAOs), and 46 percent for chief human capital officers (CHCOs). Among the C-level executives about which they were asked, respondents reported they receive the most support from CFOs and the least support from CHCOs. Furthermore, program managers that receive more C-level support correlated with those who had larger budgets, a higher level of education, and a longer tenure as a federal program manager. Perhaps the more veteran a program manager is, the more savvy he or she is about attaining executive support.

Respondents affirmed that their program's strategic plan is shared with employees, stakeholders, and the public but that events tend to drive stakeholder involvement. When asked how customers are involved in performance evaluation, respondents specified that that activity happens through "surveys" (56 percent) and is "measured by program success/customer satisfaction" (53 percent) most often. (They could select more than one response for this question.)

Execution and Results

The last survey section, dealing with execution and results, asked questions about program management activities and their difficulty. This section also included questions dealing with the communication of performance results, how the PART could work better, and the resources and practices that could best position program managers for success.

Most participants reported that they receive timely, objective information about their program's performance and cost status. Nonetheless, as program managers receive information, they pass it along in varying degrees of transparency. For example, respondents noted that program and performance results are shared with employees (94 percent), stakeholders (88 percent), the public (80 percent), and grantees (55 percent), and most consider their programs effective in accomplishing goals and achieving meaningful results. This relatively positive finding complements recent results posted on OMB's Web site, which show that 72 percent of federal programs are performing (as opposed to "not performing") on the basis of PART assessments.

Although survey data assessing the difficulty of daily activities varied greatly, those most often rated as extremely difficult by respondents are developing measures and assessing program results (18 percent), responding to special requests from OMB (16 percent), and preparing or negotiating budget requests (14 percent). One respondent wrote, "I'm spending more time feeding measurement systems than focusing on strategic decisions and investments that will produce future results." Another survey-taker shared, "Any free time has been taken up with PART, GPRA,ABC.... The never ending requests from DC for data, information, etc., has resulted in staff often not having time to actually work on program requirements."

In their comments, respondents noted a desire for a more flexible evaluation instrument that is less subjective than the 25-item PART Illustrating this point, one participant noted, "[PART] ratings themselves seem arbitrary, not uniform across similar programs, and the final rating process is non-transparent." This characterization is consistent with a recently released GAO report, which also surveyed federal program managers and found them frustrated with both the PART and OMB's raters.

When asked the most motivating incentive, these program managers most often selected monetary rewards (70 percent), followed by promotions (55 percent), and internal recognition (53 percent). (Respondents could select more than one response.) One participant suggested, "Significant monetary awards based on a percentage of measurable cost savings to the government [would be most motivating]." The highest-rated investment choice to help program managers better achieve their objectives was additional budget for program-related resources (non-staff) (64 percent), followed by additional staff (53 percent), and finally additional investment in information technology (50 percent). (Respondents could select more than one response.) Lastly, respondents expressed their desire to interact more often within their peer group. When asked what would help their program be most successful, the program managers most often selected "a network of federal program managers to share best practices and lessons learned, in person and online."


Many inferences can be drawn from the findings of this initial study. A foundational issue--the ambiguity of the program manager role--was underscored throughout this initiative. When compiling the list of program managers to invite to the survey, for example, we often encountered the question "What constitutes a 'program' and subsequently a 'program manager' within the federal space?" and received varied answers. Inconsistency pervades the program management community--in job title, preparation for the job, difficulty of everyday activities, and execution of projects.

The dispersion of responses for professional development and training reinforce the notion that program managers are not positioned similarly in their roles. Results point to a potential need to train program managers in a more standardized fashion, perhaps enacting a certification requirement with customized training particular to this population. Consistency could also be gained through increased knowledge sharing online or in person. A network of program managers--a notion that was well received in the survey--could serve to educate program managers on best practices, for example. Formalized mentoring programs could also serve to improve consistency in the role. Many survey takers sought more C-level support than they actually received, and discussions with a manager were seen as a helpful activity in meeting performance goals.

Many survey participants are nearing retirement, so the survey findings also lead to the question, "Will Generations X and Y be ready to take the program management reigns?" Fortunately, more associations and nonprofits are starting to provide resources to this young and evolving community. The Partnership for Public Service's Annenberg Leadership Institute, The Council for Excellence in Government's Fellows Program, and other industry learning and mentoring programs are offering specific training in government leadership. Emerging coaching programs, succession planning, and formal training will also help train junior managers to one day assume the responsibilities that our survey group currently holds.


Program management continues to be a little understood segment of government. Although program managers have tremendous responsibility programmatically and financially, not enough is known about the daily experiences of this population. This survey was an initial attempt to illuminate the program manager role by identifying who program managers are and what they encounter day to day. We strongly encourage more research into the making of successful programs, whether academic, practitioner based, nonprofit, or, ideally, a fusion that generates cooperative research.

How the program manager role will evolve in the short term under the new administration is unknown. Numerous factors are likely to impact program managers, but even if they are a "moving target," the federal government needs to thoughtfully convene this group more often, facilitating a continued, open dialogue. Successfully positioning the next generation of program managers should be an issue important to all Americans, regardless of administration. As one survey respondent put it best, "All of us are better than one of us."


GAO. Government Performance: Lessons Learned for the Next Administration on Using Performance Information to Improve Results, GAO-08-1026T, July 24, 2008.

Naval Sea Systems Command. The Mentoring Network: A Voluntary Learning Partnership. A Guide for Mentors, Version 1, August 2007.

Office of Personnel Management. "Executive Branch Employment by Gender and Race/National Origin September 1992 September 2005." Federal Employment Statistics.

OMB. Mid-Session Review, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009.

Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton. Federal Human Capital: The Perfect Storm. A Study of Chief Human Capital Officers.

Selena Rezvani and Stephen Pick Selena Rezvani is the consulting lead for Management Concepts' assessment practice. A specialist in organizational change, Selena received her master's degree in social work from New York University and is completing her MBA at Johns Hopkins University Stephen Pick is a human capital consultant for Management Concepts. Formerly a human capital analyst and personnel psychologist at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Stephen has a PsyD from Rutgers University in organizational psychology.
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Title Annotation:Image of Public Service
Author:Rezvani, Selena; Pick, Stephen
Publication:The Public Manager
Article Type:Survey
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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