Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

Managing Data-Intensive Programs and Projects: Selected Articles

By Dennis D. McDonald

Introduction

Digital and cloud-based services are changing how government IT resources are procured and managed. Of personal and professional interest to me is how data intensive programs are governed given growing interest in big data and open data. I’ve created this special compendium of posts that are relevant to planning and managing data related programs and projects. There are four groups:

  1. NOAA “Big Data Project”
  2. Other Federal Programs
  3. Program and Project Management
  4. Metrics and Performance Measurement

Each section below includes links to relevant blog posts along with a representative quote from each post. The complete text of the selected articles can be displayed by clicking on the title links below or by downloading a .pdf containing the full text by clicking or tapping the image at the right.

I. NOAA “BIG DATA PROJECT”

NOAA’s “big data project” is singled out here due to its combination of unique features and its possible relevance as a model for other Federal agencies interested in working with the private sector to improve data access. Blog posts include:

  • Challenges of Public-Private Interfaces in Open Data and Big Data Partnerships. “Smaller and more agile (and potentially more innovative) companies may be more open to experimenting. Given that NOAA seems to be “outsourcing” the relationship with these smaller and more agile companies to its anchor partners, will NOAA be able to learn from how these relationships evolve so that other programs can avoid having to reinvent the wheel?”
  • Will NOAA’s “Big Data Partnership” be a Model for Other Government Agencies?“NOAA is attempting something new here. Assuming that a commercial demand actually exists for the types of data that will be pumped through the cloud vendor anchor company that NOAA eventually commits to working with, and further assuming that potential vendors and resellers are in a position to develop marketable products, this program could end up stimulating demand for and access to useful – and profitable — products and services that the government, by itself, is not in a position to support.”
  • NOAA’s Big Data Project Comes Into Focus. “There’s no guarantee that making data more available for exploitation will result in commercially viable products. But such uncertainty has always been the case no matter what example we look at in the civilian and military side. Where would electronic miniaturization efforts be without the stimulus of World War II radar guided weapons research? Where would the civilian aerospace market be without military funding of jet engine technology? And where would the Internet be without DARPA funding?”
  • Interim Report on the Generalizability of the NOAA Big Data Project’s Management Model. “It’s one thing to tolerate secrecy despite some increase in inefficiency, it’s another for secrecy to increase the likelihood of failure. Where do you draw the line? That’s hard to say. After all, this is an experimental program. Hopefully NOAA will establish appropriate management and oversight processes to address such issues with an appropriate level of transparency.”

II. OTHER FEDERAL PROGRAMS

Improvements in digital services and operational transparency are occurring throughout the Federal government. Discussed here are several different agency programs and how they are being managed.

  • Open Data Management at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “For open data programs to be managed effectively they can’t just rely on “bolted on” technologies that simply extract and publish data as-is from existing systems and data stores. For open data programs to be effective the processes, technologies, and data need to be managed in a unified fashion with existing programs and services. This is done partly to reduce the need for potentially costly duplication of source data, and partly to make it easier to align data management practices with organizational goals and objectives.”
  • Managing Open Transportation Data at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “All impacted departments and budgets need to be involved in planning, implementation, and oversight as more data are generated, standardized, released, and supported. This calls for more collaboration and coordination than can be accomplished via a series of quarterly or even monthly meetings among department heads. Such challenges are not unique to the Federal Government. All large organizations desiring to take a more strategic position in how data — the lifeblood of organization processes — are managed and released will have to address such governance issues.”
  • USAID’s “Frequently Asked Questions” and the Management of Open Data Programs. “How this overall process is managed throughout the entire “open data program management lifecycle” will determine how effective the program is, how much it costs to operate, and how long it takes. Something I am currently researching is how to best govern an open data program where a complex mix of technical, business, and legal resources, drawn from a variety of organizations, need to be coordinated. By itself, just documenting a process is never enough. Also needed is a sufficiently-resourced governance structure that supports program management in how systems and processes are changed and in how they operate.”
  • Is Making the CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database More “Open” Good Or Bad?“Note also that nothing the CFPB is doing is preventing a company from on its own using social media, social networking, and modern CRM technologies to perform its own customer support and complaint handling. Because of this it may be reasonable to ask why the Federal government should be involved in complaint handling in the first place. Is it because financial services companies generate an excessive number of consumer complaints? Is it because financial services companies themselves have inadequate complaint handling processes? Is it because financial services companies wield such life-and-death power over individual consumers?”
  • The Continuing Evolution of Data.gov. “While it is true that a platform such as GitHub is not really designed to be as user friendly as, say, Facebook, the fact is that the sharing of technical expertise among mid-level IT staff and data administrators in different governmental agencies has probably been at least as important to open data progress as the Administration’s top down support.”
  • Progress Implementing the DATA Act (draft). “Usage of USASpending.gov by government employees at Federal and State level has beensignificant partly because of the ease of using the system as opposed to more complex or siloed legacy systems. [Author’s note: this is a common finding among developers of “open data” systems for government data. Even when public access is a prime motivator for system development it is not at all unusual for government employees to themselves be heavy users.]”

III. PROGRAM AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT

The nuts and bolts of how data intensive projects are managed has fascinated me since early in my career when I made a living designing and managing statistical research projects. Since then I’ve become more involved with the business and management side of managing data and IT related projects. The posts in this group reflect this including my emphasis on project communication and collaboration.

  • Dashboarding Open Data Program Governance. “A key feature of the Project Open Data effort being managed by OMB and OSTP is that so much of it is being conducted in the open using accessible resources such as shared documentation, a defined metadata schema, and use of GitHub for capturing comments and issues. Agencies that want to involve private sector vendors in their open date efforts should consider the use and management of such tools as a required part of program governance and oversight (as long as sufficient staff and resources are provided to manage such efforts, of course).”
  • Observations and Questions about Open Data Program Governance. “The first generation open data programs focused on making data files available via a catalog type interface. This is evolving as people move beyond a “transparency” focus to ensuring that open data programs also deliver useful data in a usable fashion so that positive impacts can be generated from consumption of the open data. Focusing on technology and the size and number of data files made available via a portal need not distract from a focus on users and data usage. One can start by creatinga well-documented set of “open data use cases” and then work back to understand what types of process, system, and data changes will be needed to support those use cases.”
  • Balancing Structure and Flexibility in Collaborative Project Management. “From a project management perspective, we will always need agreement on project goals and deliverables, on a high level plan to accomplish these goals that specifies roles and responsibilities, and on a method for tracking and reporting progress. Communication, collaboration, and information sharing are critical to all these project areas. Increasingly, the ease with which communication, collaboration, and information sharing are accomplished are becoming much more personal, less formalized, and more social. We need to take advantage of this trend in how we manage projects.”
  • Data Program Governance and the Success of Shared Digital Services. “As a former number cruncher I appreciate the satisfaction one derives from gathering, organizing, presenting, and interpreting data in clever and meaningful ways. But it also requires a lot of work to get to that point especially when the data come from multiple sources, siloed organizations, and legacy systems. This is especially true when an attempt is being made — as with “open data” programs — to bring new users, intermediaries, and innovative uses into the picture. The Booz Allen Hamilton report, while it doesn’t going into any real detail about program governance, does emphasize the importance of organization such as OMB in promoting cross-organizational guidance and leadership in implementing programs such as the DATA Act.”
  • Audit of the VA’s Project Management Accountability System (PMAS) Implementation. “Also, was it appropriate to create a “dashboard” process which, by definition, assumes availability of appropriate and timely data? Or would it have been more appropriate and effective to start out with less formalized and more personal reporting processes that would take advantage of modern telecommunication and conferencing so that program and project managers could interact spontaneously in real time? Such processes are time consuming and weigh heavily on senior management, but perhaps they should be attempted at least as an interim process.”
  • A Project Manager’s Perspective on the GAO’s Federal Data Transparency Report. “The reality is that developing and implementing data standards — including data standards governing multiple financial systems — takes time, money, and planning. If you’re piggybacking a standards process on top of standardization processes already underway and managed by a confederation of institutions, you may have to compromise, starting with possible dependence on someone else’s schedule for developing and implementing standards.”
  • Understanding How Open Data Reaches the Public. “In the long run, traditional top-down efforts at management control may be insufficient to ensure that both agency goals and the potential benefits of open data access — including unanticipated but positive consequences — are realized in an efficient and cost effective manner. While leadership by the Federal government’s IT infrastructure will be necessary, it will also be necessary to ensure that ongoing efforts to advance open data access are managed efficiently both across agencies and in accordance with individual agency and program priorities. IT staff cannot do this on their own and will have to work closely with agency management.”
  • How Can Collaboration Systems and Social Media Complement Agile Project Management?“Anyone who has managed a large or complex project will understand this need to adapt management techniques. Some high-risk tasks may require creativity and innovation. Other low risk tasks in the same project may require mind-numbing repetition. The people, processes, and systems associated with these tasks may need to be managed differently. Because variations exist in the types of controls appropriate for different types of tasks (e.g., concepts such as “milestone” and “deliverable” may differ) I would suggest that, at minimum, the project’s communication infrastructure should be unified and transparent. People should have one place they can go to view, discuss, and report on their own set of tasks, they should be able to see what others are doing, and they should be able to put their own work into an overall context that allows them to see how what they do impacts “the big picture.”
  • Is the Project Management Office Evolving or Devolving?“This improving ability to share and collaborate goes a long way, I think, to overcoming one of the biggest causes for project failure — the lack of a cohesive approach to problem solving based on a shared understanding of goals and objectives. At the same time, improvements in communication and collaboration don’t reduce the need for leadership. Leadership needs to be familiar and comfortable with software and network based tools that allow for rapid sharing among team members, even when these tools seem to fly against traditional bureaucratic or hierarchical traditions.”
  • Progress On Open and Collaborative Project Management. “It’s not likely that a “one size fits all” tool will emerge to satisfy everyone’s requirements. While I know of smaller organization that rely on the sharing and realtime collaboration features of Google Drive to run projects, older and larger organizations may not have the liberty or capability to implement such solutions across the board. Managing projects through reliance on multiple platforms for project management, communication, and collaboration may simply be inevitable.”

IV. METRICS AND PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT

You need data to manage projects and programs. You also need data to measure the performance of these projects and programs, e.g., are they doing any good? Measuring the impact of information products and services has always been of interest to me and started with academic research into scientific publishing. Similar questions about impact and utility are still being asked now about the impact of making government data more open and accessible.

  • Open Data and Performance Measurement: Two Sides of the Same Coin. “As I suggested in A Framework for Transparency Program Planning and Assessment, making data available to the public, and using that same data as the basis for performance measurement, are two sides of the same coin, especially when the source data for the two applications originate from the same systems. One important implication of this is that it helps to have a data management strategy that treats data as a valuable management resource that is managed in a comprehensive fashion and aligned with the organization’s mission and objectives. IT professionals have known this for years. Now we’re seeing more attention being paid in the public sector to data management strategy as data assets become a more visible — and public — components of government action. That’s a good thing.”
  • Defining and Measuring Enterprise Collaboration. “When you’re trying to convince “old dogs to learn new tricks” by moving to more collaborative processes built around information sharing tools that compete with standard email and meetings, you need more than just platitudes about the value of collaboration to convince people to change. You need concrete evidence and specific measurements. To do that, you need to be specific about the collaborative behaviors you’re trying to change. And if those behaviors aren’t important, or if you’re focusing on low priority activities or problems, nothing you do to improve collaboration is going to amount to much.”
  • How Our Increasing Digital Connectedness Improves Government Program Evaluation. “As more devices come “online” and become addressable as potentially accessible sources of data, the possibility arises that events and conditions associated with the delivery of government services to individuals can be monitored in order to provide contextual information against which government program performance can be measured. Examples include traffic data, temperature and weather, energy consumption, environmental conditions, air quality, and other remotely-sensible conditions that can be associated with how individual programs are used at the local level.”
  • Outline of a Sequestration & Project Management Research Program. “Some agencies have been experiencing declining budgets and uncertain futures for years as wrangling over Federal budgets has consumed the Congress and the White House. Both large and small projects have been impacted, some by uncertainty, others by the need to stretch out budgets and schedules in the face of reduced resources. It’s a tough environment in which to manage projects successfully. Managers have to do more with less, they have to make resource substitutions, and they have to juggle due dates and overall priorities.”
  • Just Measuring Government Performance Is Not Enough. “Let’s start with the fundamental question, “How do you measure whether or not a government program is a success?” There’s no simple answer to this question, even when you focus on outcome and benefit measures and not just on intermediate measures such as transaction volume or cost. There’s no getting around the fact that measuring performance takes time, money, and planning, especially if you are trying to do so in a logical and consistent fashion. Just because measuring performance is difficult is no reason not to try. If you’ve been paying attention to the admirable efforts at OMB and Performance.gov you’ll see what I mean.”

Copyright © 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a management consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. His experience includes consulting company ownership and management, database publishing and data transformation, managing the integration of large systems, corporate technology strategy, social media adoption, statistical research, open data, and IT cost analysis. Clients have included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Library of Medicine. He has worked as a project manager, analyst, and researcher throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Egypt, and China. His web site is located at www.ddmcd.com and his email address is ddmcd@yahoo.com. On Twitter he is @ddmcd

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Progress Implementing the DATA Act (draft)