Coming IT program managers will be senior leaders

Commenters on OPM's draft job description want stronger distinction from existing federal IT project managers.

A cadre of newly codified federal information technology positions known as IT program managers will likely be highly paid and highly ranked, with broad authority to manage major technology development initiatives, specialists say.

Generally, IT program managers should oversee a single large-scale information technology initiative that involves multiple teams working on different components, Alan Balutis, a former chief information officer at the Commerce Department and now a director at Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group, told Nextgov.

"We were looking at a senior executive-level position, someone who, besides any kind of outside education or certification, has actually had growing responsibility for increasingly larger-scale projects," Balutis said.

Balutis was part of a group of former federal chief information officers and other executives who helped outline the scope of the program manager position for White House Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra.

Establishing the IT program manager position is one goal in Kundra's 25-point plan to reform federal IT management, published in December 2010.

In March, the Office of Personnel Management issued a draft description of the new positions. The comment period for that draft job description closed on April 14, and the office expects to issue a final job description in May, a spokeswoman said.

IT program manager is already a common job title across much of the federal government, the Veteran's Affairs Department's Chief Information Officer Roger Baker said on Monday, but there isn't a codified system for who qualifies for program manager status or what the job should entail.

Balutis' group, the Senior Advisors to Government Executives, described program management as not "institutionalized as an established management discipline" within the government outside of the Defense Department and a few civilian agencies.

The SAGE group is affiliated with the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

The comments on OPM's draft job description were largely positive, a spokeswoman said. The primary concern was that the program manager position wasn't distinguished strongly enough from an IT project manager position, created in 2004.

According to the draft description, an IT program manager "coordinates, communicates and integrates IT projects and program activities" and "ensure[s] that the work effort achieves the outcome as specified within the IT business strategies."

An IT project manager, by contrast, "directly manag[es] information technology projects to provide a unique service or product."

Balutis said he'd also like to see more specifics in the final job description.

Balutis described a project manager's job as being wholly responsible for one component of a major IT initiative, such as developing a single software program.

Program managers, he said, should be responsible for something much larger, such as organizing work on multiple new operating systems, making sure things come out as scheduled and overseeing communication between different teams of IT developers, the agency staff that will use the new systems and legal and financial teams.

"All of that would be rolled up under one program manager who would be in charge of the entire array of initiatives," Balutis said, and who would be "guiding the whole change effort and be the point of interface with the senior leadership."

As an example, Balutis cited a $5 billion Commerce Department program to modernize the National Weather Service from the 1990s that included not only upgrading the equipment for collecting weather data but also shifting to an information-gathering model that relied much more on technology and less on employees using rain gauges.

"It's really one of those jobs where there's no such thing as something that's not your responsibility," VA's Baker said.

"A great program manager to me is someone who's got the view that whatever it takes to get the program delivered, that's the best use of my time," Baker said. "Whether that's going up and talking to the secretary to keep my program online ... or filling out paperwork, the most mundane stuff, to get three new programmers a laptop."