Why good program governance is a key to success

Having the rights stakeholders with the right information is imperative to improving decision-making.

IT team meeting (Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com)

As one involved in federal IT for the past two decades, it is heartening to see that Congress allocated an additional investment of $1 billion to the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) in the fiscal year 2021. There is also a possibility that Congress will add $250 million to the TMF this fiscal year. And I have been impressed with the process and rigor that OMB and GSA have established for deciding which IT programs and agencies will receive such funds to further their IT modernization efforts.

Yet as federal IT moves forward with its modernization efforts, I have concerns. Many agencies don’t have the experience nor all the needed talent to drive digital transformation initiatives. Such modernization goes well beyond adopting cloud services or building small applications that “modernize” a small corner of an agency’s core business processes. True transformation and modernization go to the roots of replacing certain core legacy systems (many agencies initially developed such systems decades ago) while ensuring reimagined business processes take advantage of newer technologies and sophisticated data analytics. Given the scope of such modernization efforts, federal government agencies must stand-up IT programs to manage such transformations.

There are several key elements to successfully delivering IT programs, including planning, staffing, use of proven development techniques and the integrated support of finance and procurement. But for this column, I am focusing on what I consider the most overlooked, yet one of the most important, keys to success—good program governance.

When executing any IT program, an agency must make frequent important decisions that affect the program. The program management office (PMO) should make many of these decisions. An experienced program manager will establish the necessary processes to ensure the PMO makes such decisions with the best information and input available, balanced with the need to make timely decisions. But with larger transformation programs, certain decisions require the input of stakeholders outside the program, most notably the business or mission owners who will reap the program’s benefits. And a program needs and can benefit from other stakeholders’ involvement—for IT programs, such stakeholders should include the agency’s IT, finance, procurement, security, general counsel and privacy organizations.

Program governance

Program governance is the process by which an agency makes decisions affecting a program. An agency should establish a governance model that ensures the program adopts the attributes of good decision-making, namely having the right individuals involved and the correct information to inform those making decisions. Establishing such a governance model does not guarantee all program decisions made will be good ones. Still, an agency can significantly enhance a program’s performance through a good governance model.

Yet, in my experience, agencies do not pay nearly enough attention to program governance. There is a naivety regarding the rigor that an agency should instill regarding programs, particularly large ones, to support good decision-making. For government agencies of all sizes, a formal program governance model that becomes embedded in how an agency delivers programs can be of significant and lasting value to an agency’s effectiveness and efficiency in carrying out its mission.

Good governance has benefits beyond just improving decision-making. If key stakeholders are part of the governance process, it helps drive alignment. For example, evidence shows that IT programs often fail due to ill-defined requirements or poorly managed requirements scope throughout the program’s life cycle. While true, this is a symptom of a more fundamental underlying cause: the inability for all key stakeholders in a program to be “on the same page” in defining desired outcomes and approaches to meet those outcomes.

In most IT programs, achieving such alignment is not a one-time event occurring at the beginning of a program but an ongoing process critical throughout the strategy, planning, design, development and fielding of systems delivered by the program. This is an entire life-cycle process. Significant change is inevitable in an IT program as it evolves, and ongoing alignment is critical to success. Having key stakeholders involved in essential program decisions is a critical element in ensuring such alignment.

How best to ensure good program governance? Based on my experience, an agency should establish a separate program-level governance board for any key IT transformation program. A program governance board is empowered to make decisions related to that program. Members of a program governance board are typically executives and represent the key stakeholder organizations of that program. Those members must have the authority to commit their organizations to activities related to the program. The program manager should have a single reporting chain, and it should be to that program’s governance board.

For a program governance board to be effective, it is imperative to create an environment of collaboration and trust among the board members. To promote such collaboration, decisions in a governance board should be consensus-driven, not reduced to a vote-counting exercise. If a governance board cannot make a critical decision through consensus, the decision is escalated to the next highest-level board (likely an investment review board in most agencies) or, if need be, the head of the agency. But if a governance board is empowered to make decisions, the members will strive to reach consensus and drive significantly improved alignment amongst themselves in the vast majority of cases. In an organization with mature governance, boards will force themselves to make tough decisions. This is what an agency’s leadership should want—the key executives most affected by a decision working collaboratively to weigh all issues and make the optimal decision for the program and hence, the agency.

One last point on program governance—while an investment review board or other enterprise governance board will typically meet bi-monthly or quarterly, program-governance boards are generally more active. In today’s environment of moving to incremental or even agile development, an IT program-governance board should be meeting no less than monthly and, in some cases, even every other week, depending on the type of program and life cycle stage of the investment. This is the level of commitment required of executives of the key stakeholder organizations to help ensure program success.