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Partnering with Government Agencies to Manage Projects

December 9, 2014 - Kestrel Management

From time to time, private businesses are faced with the prospect of partnering with a government agency, office, or department in order to accomplish a goal or undertake a project. Reasons vary: the effort may result from an enforcement action, consent order, or settlement agreement, or it may simply be a strategic priority that requires joining forces with a federal, state, or local government office. In any case, working with government agencies presents opportunities and challenges not regularly encountered in a competitive business’s projects.

Reset Your Clock

Government agencies do not move at the speed of competitive business—they typically move much slower. Government budgeting and spending are intentionally lengthy processes that are subject to the political winds. As a result, it is not unusual for agencies to employ (legacy) infrastructure and systems that have worked in the past, regardless of apparent inefficiencies today.

If the agency will be contributing financially to the effort, it may take years for funding to be proposed, studied, discussed, approved in a budget, and then approved to spend. Similarly, any decision-making can be an arduous and lengthy process involving a multitude of managers and influencers.

Understanding how funding and decisions are made and who needs to be involved is critical to managing the time element of projects. Often, the dominant motive for decision-making is protection of the status quo and personal job security, versus “let’s try something new and exciting”. Stakeholder management requires understanding, patience, and persistence.

Take the Lead

Business should expect to take the lead in project management. Most government agencies will advertise successful projects after they are completed, but will keep unproven or work-in-progress low key, pending successful results. Similarly, they will participate as directed in the work but do not usually want to be viewed as driving a public-private partnership, as even the appearance of an overly close relationship with a particular business can compromise the agency’s perceived objectivity. Finally, many public agencies do not have trained project managers on staff to lead such an effort, while a business may.

Find an Agency Champion

Successful execution of the project plan requires timely coordination and cooperation from the agency, and may involve a number of different departments or functions within it. For example, building a joint facility may involve facilities, IT, security, finance, law, and operations departments. In order to get the cooperation needed from the various departments, those staffs will expect someone in their direct chain of command to prioritize the project.

In competitive business, a Vice President acting as project sponsor may have all the authority he/she needs to expect and get cooperation across the property. But in a government agency, a Director or Section Chief over one of the areas may carry absolutely no authority in another department. Government agencies tend to be very silo-ed in their structures, not matrixed. It is important to find a sponsor far enough up the chain to cover all areas involved and to communicate his support of the project to all areas—even if he/she is not regularly directly involved in the project.

Build a Lasting Relationship

So often, the only time business and agencies interact is when one needs something from the other. This can lead to a strained relationship, characterized by avoidance or begrudging interactions. These are the same agencies, however, where a positive working relationship can result in a business competitive advantage. Working closely with these gatekeepers of the regulations and public trust in a non-confrontational setting can set the foundation for a new relationship built upon mutual understanding and achieving common goals.

Government employees fill a valuable role in society by providing services and protecting society. Besides understanding the current enforcement priorities, they interact with customers, competitors and even employees, and can provide valuable information or ideas for businesses to improve efficiencies or help direct the focus of current business efforts.

Case Study: Utility Environmental Management System (EMS)

Kestrel managed a project with an investor-owned utility to design and implement an Environmental Management System (EMS) at a coal-fired power plant. The result of a consent order from the state Natural Resources Department, both the utility and the agency were involved from design and implementation to final auditing and EMS acceptance by the agency. The project and the associated agency interactions brought the plant higher confidence in its environmental plans and operations, and gave local regulators a deeper understanding of the utility business and ownership of the plant’s path forward.

Case Study: Railroad Border Security

Kestrel recently managed a partnership project with a Class I railroad and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to improve rail security at the U.S.-Mexico border. The process of jointly assessing security and threats at each location led to proposed hardware and technology investments at the chosen rail-yards and points of interchange (Mexico–U.S.). Standardizing the equipment and then processes will allow both the agency and the railroad to improve efficiencies, safety, and security – achieving objectives for both organizations.

Take-Aways

Working with a government agency to manage a project is different than working with a competitive business. However, doing so can be beneficial to achieving both parties’ objectives if the company knows how to successfully navigate the working relationship:

  1. Understand how government funding and decisions are made before project kickoff.
  2. Actively manage government stakeholders—expect to take the lead.
  3. Find a project sponsor with the authority to ensure cooperation from all agency departments involved.
  4. Take advantage of the opportunity to build a positive, long-lasting relationship.

Submitted by: Chris Tarpey

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