Project management in the public sector: a new threat or an opportunity?

Jurgita Domeikiene, Team Leader for EU Public Finance Management Support Programme for Ukraine (EU4PFM), International Key Expert on HR/PAR shared her opinion about the project management in the public sector for media “Derzhsluzhbovets”.

For the private sector encompassing businesses of all sizes, project management is an essential tool that pushes them forward. It helps to achieve desired results effectively and save time.

Jurgita Domeikienė
Team Leader

Nowadays, project management has become a separate discipline: an essential skill of modern workflow and a distinct career path. It’s an integral part of the public sector development in European countries. Naturally, it raises the question, how could it be useful for Ukraine’s public sector?

From what it all started

Throughout human history, project management has existed informally. It was recognized as a separate discipline only in the middle of the 20th century, realizing that the changing world needs new tools and methods. The main drive behind it was addressing planning and resource allocation issues arising from increasingly complex projects.

Eventually, this has led to the development and standardization of tools used by the experts in the field, spurring out a new project management profession. Thus, in 1969, the Project Management Institute (PMI) was established in the United States. Later the first standards appeared: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), Prince2 Projects in Controlled Environments, ISO 21500 Guidance on Project Management, etc.

Advanced training courses were opened, following the established project, program, and portfolio management standards. The end goal was to devise a mechanism that could allow people from different industries, fields, and even countries to collaborate using common professional project management language and tools.

From project to project management

In the professional literature, several definitions of a project could be found. Most define a project as a temporal activity in which a unique result is created.

The project is realized with project management. It could be defined as a process in which a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, tools, and methods are applied to achieve the desired result.

The main objective of project management is to accomplish set goals most efficiently and contribute to the fulfillment of all involved stakeholders’ targets. It helps systematically supervise the project’s scope, time, quality, budget, human recourses, changes, and risks. This requires a particular set of skills and abilities. Hence, the need for the professionals in the previously mentioned project management career paths that are widely adopted in most organizational structures.

Project management differs from other work efforts because it focuses on results rather than performing daily functions. With a clearly defined scope, budget, and assigned team, it uses enhanced monitoring and control system at all stages of the project. Unlike the more conservative public sector, it uses a flexible approach, better suited for sudden changes and new challenges. It’s created with the results in mind.

Why should project management be the new normal in the public sector?

The main task of the public institutions is to maintain the stability of the state, carrying out routine processes outlined by the current legislation in place. However, the world around us is ever-changing. New technologies, the rapid growth of information, new challenges, and tasks focused on the needs of citizens and businesses require changes in the public sector.

Public institutions, in parallel to functional activities, are also starting to implement projects aimed at resolving strategic problems (e.g., Government priorities), developing new products (e.g., new IT tools for performance management), or improving the quality of public services (e.g., to digitalize existing or to creating new ones). Thus, public sector institutions face the challenges of managing the interconnected processes and ensuring the successful implementation of projects. Project management is one of the most effective ways to overcome those challenges and revolutionize traditional public administration.

It should be emphasized that project management doesn’t replace daily routine processes. Nor does it require substantial changes in the organizational structure. Therefore, project management in the public sector should be an additional instrument for personnel when implementing changes. It’s worth mentioning that some preconditions are indeed essential for the successful application of project management in public sector organizations. 

First of all, considering the number of projects implemented in it and the specifics of their activities, public sector institutions may choose an appropriate project management organizational model. Common preferences are already existing functional, projects, or matrix organizational management structures.

No matter what public administration institution’s organizational structure is, the project management process should be formalized. For example, this should include a scheme of project management organizational structure, descriptions of project management participants’ roles and responsibilities. This should also be reflected in relevant internal regulations.

To form unified project management practices in public administration institutions, it’s also necessary to have methodological documents (descriptions, guidelines, etc.). These guidance documents should provide detailed information on the project management system, participants, their functions, and responsibilities. This also should include descriptions of the basic principles of the applied project management model, its steps, and instructions for their implementation.

The project management system’s development should also indicate what specific tools and instruments will be used in the process (e.g., IT system, etc.). Also, it should be clear how the projects’ results, risks, and control measures will be documented. For this purpose, templates (forms) of the mentioned documents should be prepared, along with the recommendations for their preparation. Awareness-raising campaigns for all staff should be organized, including specialized training for those who will be part of project teams in the organization.

Finally, deep engagement and support from the top management of the public administration institution are critical. They must provide continuous support, as they’re the most involved with the desired results and goals related to Governmental or institutional priorities.  

Project management in the public sector: Lithuanian case

Project management is widely used in the European Union member states’ public administrations. It keeps their management practices adaptable, modern, and efficient when dealing with new challenges.

I would like to share our case as someone who has been a part of the Lithuanian civil service for more than 20 years and actively participated in public administration reforms. The most active impetus for such transformation was the country’s preparation for accession to the European Union. Many projects, especially funded by the European Union, were launched with an ultimate goal to prepare the country to join European countries’ families and use the best EU practices in all areas. So, starting from this, project management slowly but confidently was taking steps into public administration institutions.   

From a current perspective, the project management in Lithuania is implemented in a holistic and centralized approach. First of all, it has a legal background – the Law on Strategic Management of the Republic of Lithuania defines the interfaces of strategic management with project management. The Government has approved the standard project management procedures of the Republic of Lithuania by its resolution. Furthermore, with all relevant methodological guidance and necessary templates, the Project Management Standard has been developed by the Office of the Government and is being regularly reviewed and updated.

The developed standard is a methodological document that recommends applying systematized theoretical and practical knowledge of project management to effectively implement projects, project programs, and portfolios in the public sector. The document describes the procedures for managing projects, project programs, and portfolios, according to which would be implemented in the planned schedule, scope, and budget. The mechanism for monitoring and controlling them proposed in the standard ensures the rational use of state resources and greater benefits for society. The document explains how a project, program, and portfolio management processes relate to existing strategic planning methodologies. It’s based on the PMI project management standard PMBOK. It should be highlighted that even after developing a single standard, institutions may choose to apply other project management standards in their activities.

Simultaneously with the introduction of project management standards in Lithuania, began an active training of employees of Governmental institutions. Finally, the IT tools for project management in all ministries and other subordinated institutions were developed.

All those necessary prerequisites and elements for successful application of project management in the Lithuanian public sector weren’t built in a year. Some of them, like necessary legislation and regulations, were adopted or approved just recently. This is a result of the long, systematic, and challenging work of many civil servants in the Office of the Government and relevant ministries, supported by the strong political will to implement changes in the most effective way.  

How could the public administration of Ukraine benefit from EU countries’ practices?  

European Union Public Finance Management Support Programme for Ukraine (EU4PFM) project, implemented in Ukraine since 2019 within the framework of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU, supports the reforms of public finance management in Ukraine to develop better services for citizens and businesses as well as to establish transparency and build trust. Our main partners are the Ministry of Finance, the State Tax Service, the State Customs Service, and the Accounting Chamber. Besides many activities focused on improving the development and implementation of tax and customs policies, we assist our Partner institutions in improving human resource management and supporting organizational changes. The promotion of project management as a tool to implement changes also falls under the scope of activities of EU4PFM.

A series of seminars on project management is planned to be organized for the Ministry of Finance employees and other Partner institutions. The first three-day training seminar on the fundamentals of project management for employees of the Ministry of Finance of Ukraine was held in August 2021. This will be followed by recommendations on how to build an effective project management system in public finance management institutions and how to use the benefits of project management in reforms planned by the Government in this area. I hope that this will become good practice and be shared with other public sector institutions in Ukraine. 

The introduction of the EU countries’ experience in applying project management in the public sector and the extensive training of civil servants on new management tools could significantly help the ongoing reform process in Ukraine.

Jurgita Domeikiene