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September 07, 2004

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Steady Funding; Michigan State Police Shoots for Success of IT Projects Over the Long Haul

By Jim McKay, Government Technology

Costly IT project failures are expensive and all too common.

The Michigan State Police department is dealing with one potential problem by developing a Project Management Office and a funding template.

It's hoped the template will solve a long-standing dilemma: IT projects often flop due to lack of foresight and failure to develop a funding stream that addresses long-term maintenance and upkeep issues.

"We've had a number of those examples," said Lt. Col. Tom Miller of the Michigan State Police. "It's not necessarily any fault of the business owner of the project. It's just that we weren't thinking long term. It was, 'How much will it cost to develop and implement the project?' We weren't asking the follow-up questions like, 'What would be the ongoing expense?'"

Miller said the Project Management Office and funding template will help in several ways, including locating grants; ensuring IT projects' long-term maintenance costs are addressed up front; eliminating the "bartering" for available funds that happens between agencies; and developing a centralized approach to managing IT projects.

The State Police department manages a multitude of criminal justice and public safety applications, and has jurisdiction over about 90 percent of forensic lab work done in the state. "Doing all that is complex, and trying to do a decentralized approach -- there weren't the appropriate checks and balances," Miller said.

The decentralized approach means each division pursues projects independently without oversight, and is on its own when it comes to budget and technology issues.

"You get a lot of behind-the-scenes bartering for resources to try to get projects done," Miller said. "It's counterproductive to an agency's overall strategic plan."

The decentralized approach also means little or no standardization when technology is implemented, because each division makes its own decisions. Oftentimes more than one division has similar needs and could collaborate on technology, but they don't.

"What we're trying to do here is create a more centralized project management process that allows us to make decisions from an overall agency perspective," Miller said.

Another function of the project management staff will be locating grant opportunities for the Michigan State Police and its divisions. "Sometimes there's grant funding out there that one division is going for that spills over into needs of another division," Miller said. "We'd like to look at ways we can partner within the agency to have a better chance to get funded and develop leverage through partnerships."

The Project Management Office will have a central project management staff to collaborate with representatives of divisions involved in a project.

The Funding Template
The centralized approach is also important, because in this era of homeland security concerns, available funds must be spent wisely. The money should go to technology that allows for interoperability, Miller said.

"A lot of what is happening now is trying to equip our first responders, which is necessary. It needs to be done," he said. "But ultimately the real solutions lie in trying to improve information sharing, intelligence sharing, being able to not only query data but push and pull data -- having notification capabilities or something you're looking for that somebody else might come across."

As part of the effort to develop the Project Management Office, the State Police also created a funding template to assure IT project development doesn't stop once projects are implemented, Miller said.

"We're not looking at ongoing maintenance costs," he said. "I don't think we're any different from anyone else. You're searching around for dollars to try and do projects, particularly looking at grant dollars to fund a project and get something in place, and then you don't have the revenue stream to cover the costs of it long term."

The template would address ongoing maintenance, licensing and other requirements germane to the individual division. The division head or project manager will work with the Project Management Office staff prior to project implementation to ensure all requirements are addressed in the template.

In creating the Project Management Office, the State Police followed in the footsteps of the state's Department of Information Technology (DIT).

Project Management Pays Off
Even before the DIT's creation in 2001, project management offices were developed in other state agencies.

"I really see it is something all state agencies will have to do because they're going to run into the same issues we did in terms of these competing interests at a division level," Miller said.

George Boersma, director of the DIT's Office of Technology Partnerships, said having a centralized project management office simply makes sense. "You've got to have somebody in charge of these large projects who understands project management," he said.

Before the Project Management Office's creation, the person chosen to head IT projects knew little or nothing about project management, Boersma said. "You [the head of the project] know everything about the program, but you know nothing about how to run a project of that nature," he said. "It's not their fault they don't understand the whole concept of project management. We're trying to raise the level of people managing these projects to the point where they can just go out and do it."

As with DIT's Project Management Office, the State Police office will include certified project managers, who will either be hired, or existing employees could get project management training to become certified.

The DIT has taken the lead in encouraging state agencies to develop project management offices, has developed standards and methodology for project managers, and provides certification training, according to Boersma.

"We're trying to take project management and basically get it out there to the agencies so we can get these projects done on time and on budget," he said. "When you have shortfalls in your budget, you have to look at everything and see what you can and can't do."