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Bright Spots in Government: VA Acquisition Academy’s Program Management Fellows Initiative

Integrity Management Consulting and GovLoop are proud to present a 12-part series called “Conscientious Contracting: A Thoughtful Approach to Acquisition and Program Management,” that aims to address common challenges and achieve new efficiencies in government procurement.  Integrity Matters will bring you occasional posts written by GovLoop’s Andrew Krzmarzick, featuring the expertise of Integrity subject matter experts and other professionals in acquisition.

In a recent GovLoop survey of acquisition professionals, seven out of ten respondents said the most important factor for a successful acquisition was program staff having the necessary knowledge and skills. However, more than 60% believed that lack of training and understanding for these same individuals was the biggest hindrance to acquisition success.

Bridging the Knowledge Gap

One agency – the Department of Veterans Affairs – has responded to this challenge by launching the Program Management Fellows (PM Fellows) training initiative within its VA Acquisition Academy

(VAAA) last year. PM Fellows is built upon the 17 critical competencies for program and project managers as defined by the Federal Acquisition Certification for Program/Project Managers (FAC… program.

At its core, “the PM Fellows Program is designed to accelerate the development of participants’ competence and confidence in those defined areas by providing an opportunity for application in a safe-to-fail environment,” said Richard Garrison, the Vice Chancellor of the Program Management School at the VAAA. Garrison explained why they have intentionally created this ‘safe to fail’ environment:

One of the best places to learn is on the job and learning through mistakes. The PM Fellows program provides simulations of what participants encounter in a real world situation, but allows them to address these issues in an environment where, should they fail, they can learn from the mistake and they have not lost a lot of government money and hurt customers.

Garrison said that participants return to the job with “a deeper level of understanding as well as the confidence and skills to avoid making these mistakes in the real world.”

VA developed these simulations by reviewing the most common types of projects managed by the agency as well as looking through Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Inspector General (IG) reports. They identified consistent themes that caused failures in each case study and build these factors into simulations so that future project managers are being tested against the most difficult potential scenarios.

Variety of Teaching Methods Used

The PM Fellows Program incorporates the principles of adult learning theory by combining formal classroom training with skill-building workshops, on-the-job training, and remote and self-paced learning. Specific program components are described below:

  • The formal Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers (FAC-P/PM)classroom courses provide the foundation for the program, exposing the fellow to the core principles and concepts related to the identified program/project management competencies for government employees.
  • Fellows then immediately attend skill-building workshops to provide timely opportunities to apply these newly acquired skills to government-specific case studies, scenarios, or projects in a safe learning environment supported by instructors and coaches.
  • PM fellows also spend time on the job (OJT) reinforcing the skills learned in the classroom and workshops with support from a mentor and coach.
  • While on the job, fellows participate in remote connectivity learning activities to help them address immediate challenges faced on the job.
  • These remote connectivity events are accessible to the fellows through the Knowledge Collaboration Site (KCS), where participants can find coursework and skill-building material, performance support tools and checklists, project management articles, templates, reports, and links or direct access to program/project management-related guidance, resources, and publications.
  • Fellows are finally challenged to employ their full range of acquired PM and interpersonal skills to solve a range of PM problems in a capstone practicum.
  • Fellows also develop and execute individualized learning paths for developing PM skills related to their specific career track such as IT, construction, healthcare, and logistics. For example, fellows identify self-paced learning activities they will complete to acquire the needed skills relevant to their specialty track utilizing Fellow Development Plans (FDP) and Action Plans.

Garrison said that one of the most important aspects of the program is that participants are learning through a cohort model.

The cohort model is successful in that it connects participants as they work together on certain activities. For instance, a couple of months ago the fellows were required to work together on a project. They selected one of their colleague’s challenges and worked on solutions for that project as a cohesive team,” explained Garrison. “With the support of PM School subject matter experts, the fellows conducted a virtual requirements analysis, interviewing multiple stakeholders and providing high-quality, actionable deliverables, which were very well received by the fellow’s leadership.”

Plans to Grow in the Future

At scale, the ideal cohort size will be comprised of 24 participants; however, the inaugural PM Fellows class is 13 participants. The program is an enterprise-wide endeavor as it involves employees from across the VA, including the Office of Information Technology (OI&T), Construction and Facilities Management (CFM) and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), to name a few. Moreover, participants work in locations that represent the geographic diversity of the VA and the virtual nature of the program, with cohort members residing in nine states and 71% percent of cohort participants working in the field.

According to Garrison, the PM Fellows program is already achieving demonstrable outcomes for both participants and the organization:

Even after the first training block, we were pleased to hear that fellows were not only performing project management-related tasks they were previously unable to do, but were also demonstrating increased skills in other areas such as time management, presentation skills, and writing. One participant was actually promoted after the first training block, cited in part for their participation in this program and the increased skill demonstrated as a result.

In addition, the PM fellows are applying best practices, tools and techniques to their organizations in real time, utilizing work breakdown structures (WBS) and risk registers to deliver added value for their organizations while in training.

The long-term goal of the PM Fellows program is to leverage its resources to foster a broader Program/Project Management Community of Practice.

“This community of practice will provide a means for all VA staff engaging in PM activities to work together to address VA’s toughest acquisition challenges, to stay abreast of the PM-related trends and innovations, and to communicate with one another across VA organizations, identifying best practices and lessons learned,” said Garrison.

The PM Fellows Program also hopes to work with the rest of VAAA to foster better coordination and communication between the parties involved in VA acquisition, namely the contracting staff and the project managers.

Lastly, the program is open to an eventual expansion that includes other agencies that might be interested in leveraging VA’s resources and lessons learned to train their own program and project management personnel. “This increased diversity and participation in the PM Community of Practice can only further increase its ability to identify best practices and lessons learned across civilian government agencies,” said Garrison.