Remember the “Who”: Reduce Program Risk with Early Stakeholder Engagement

Aging IT systems are a risk for the federal government, but projects to upgrade the systems must be executed well to ultimately fix the problem.

Aging and old information technology (IT) systems pose an incredible risk to government security, customer service delivery, and inhibit Federal agencies being able to successfully meet their mission. In one analysis, some government systems were over 50 years old–practically biblical in IT years. This aging infrastructure costs money ($337 million to be exact) to simply maintain these systems.

Many–including the President of the United States– have recognized that the state of the Federal government’s IT infrastructure is not tenable and new investment to automate and modernize these legacy systems is rolling out across the federal service. These modernization efforts are slated to impact millions of users and create a more streamlined and user-friendly interface for many Americans. 

These efforts cannot come a moment too soon. A recent study from McKinsey, which surveyed close to 80,000 Americans, shows that the Federal government lags significantly when it comes to customer satisfaction. These IT improvements can significantly improve the service delivery and ultimately the satisfaction of the public by transforming the state of Federal IT into a more responsive and user-friendly interface.

Despite the recent investment and focus on modernization, concerns exist that the Federal government will struggle to meet the moment. For example, one study found that the Federal government trails in many key metrics on preparedness for implementing emerging technologies.

This, however, is not the only concern that agency leaders should have. As agencies embark on these major overhauls, few are effectively executing a process that is an integral part of the project management process and is essential for the success of every government project: stakeholder engagement and management.

The purpose of designing and implementing any project is to add value to a set of stakeholders. Government projects are not executed in a vacuum and they often involve many sets of stakeholders, which include the public, other government agencies, administrative and budget staff, and potentially elected officials. More often than not, there are even additional subsets, within each of those stakeholder groups, who have their own unique perspectives and needs. 

A common pitfall for many managers is that there is little pre-planning and consideration to who the actual stakeholders are for a given project. Oftentimes, many believe that they are the sole stakeholder and that the project exists only for their benefit. Even if this is true, they fail to consider the staff and labor that is required to build and maintain the solution.

Let’s set the scene: you have been tasked to implement critical projects related to your agency’s annual priorities (e.g., policy-making, data collection from stakeholders, modernizing IT systems, etc.). Without thinking about all the possible use cases for your system or reaching out to other potential stakeholders, you develop a list of requirements to give to your IT department and ask for assistance in implementing your plan. The IT department, busy with their own myriad priorities, implements your requirements without asking many questions. Unsurprisingly, the delivered product doesn’t exactly meet all of your needs.

This scenario is both common and completely avoidable. Effective stakeholder management is a crucial aspect of IT project management and requires both the consideration of the project manager’s needs AND the project stakeholders’ needs and use cases. It involves identifying, analyzing, and managing the needs and expectations of all the stakeholders who are involved or affected by the project. Stakeholders can include project sponsors, team members, customers, end-users, suppliers, regulatory bodies, and any other groups or individuals who have an interest in or impact on the project. It is important to include them in the development of these IT solutions as early as possible.

Stakeholder management is not just a checklist item in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide; it is a dynamic relationship that you enter into with your stakeholders. And, while RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed) Matrices and other tools are incredibly useful in stakeholder management, they are, ultimately, only tools. When viewed more as a relationship, you begin to understand the importance of good communication, remaining flexible and constantly attuned to the needs of all your stakeholders. 

Early practitioners of agile software development understood this when they popularized their Manifesto for Agile Development. It reads, in part: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” 

Take the time to understand your individual stakeholders and build relationships with them. Empower them in the decision-making process, manage their expectations, and make sure their concerns are addressed so that you can maximize your chances for success.

As public servants, our goal is to make sure we deliver robust, user-friendly, modernized systems to the American people. Properly engaging with each of our stakeholders is the best way to ensure that this is accomplished and should be at the top of every project manager’s mind when modernizing their IT infrastructure. The risk of not doing so could result in wasted time, money, and effort, along with serious service delivery issues that have real consequences for real people. 

Manoj Paulson is an IT Project Manager for NOAA. He has spent the past 25 years involved in every aspect of the software development cycle in both the public and private sector. He earned his master’s in computer and IT Administration & Management and his BS in Computer Science.

Michael P. Hassett is a Strategic Resource Analyst for NOAA. He is also the co-founder and president of the nonprofit Friends of Tonga Inc. He earned his PhD and Masters of Public Policy from the University Of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and his BA in History and Political Science from La Roche University.