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Project Management and the Federal Sustainable Energy Initiative
Today's IT Project Management
The Project Management Failings of the Obama Administration's Sustainable Energy Initiative
Dr. Beverly JN Bowen, PhD
As the global economy continues to suffer the devastating consequences of unchecked growth, in the form of a prolonged recession which has decimated the housing market, private enterprises and public policymakers alike have a vested interest achieving a sustainable form of urban development. Seeking a balance between our society's collective desire for environmental responsibility and the grim calculus of continually rising human populations has long been the goal of conscientious city planners, but the role of governmental intervention in this process has inspired considerable debate among politicians, social scientists, and real estate developers. With the administration of President Barack Obama encountering resistance and ridicule after a significant investment in clean and renewable energy, a move many detractors view as a billion dollar boondoggle, the issue of government entities actively promoting sustainable urban development has risen to the forefront of the national consciousness. As a byproduct of the administration's stalled efforts to institute a nationalized sustainable building initiative, the critical importance that competent project management plays in ensuring a project's ultimate success or failure has also been heightened. A comparative analysis between the administrations ongoing "green" projects, and the tenets of modern project management as taught in this course, will serve to highlight the administration's varied levels of efficacy in terms of proper planning, risk management, adherence to the critical path method, and other techniques which increase a project's efficiency and effectiveness.
Should elected officials utilize their political positions to advance the cause of building homes and cities through sustainable means, and does this active involvement on the part of government actually serve to help or hinder the facilitation of sustainable urban development? By conducting a careful review of recent research studies designed to assess how current governmental policies impact on the industry environmentally friendly urban development, it is possible to formulate an informed conclusion regarding the relative value of future policy decisions. One of the oft repeated admonishments voiced by researchers studying the Obama administration's sustainability initiative is central to a foundational aspect of project management: methodical preparation and planning prior to launch. In the case of Solyndra, "the bankrupt Silicon Valley solar startup that received a $535 million federal loan guarantee" (Woody, 2012), before failing in spectacular fashion, points to a fatal flaw in terms of the overall project management process. The concept of identifying project proposals which are equipped to succeed and thrive, while in turn rejecting those project proposals that do not suggest future growth is to be expected, is the responsible project manager's first priority. It has been observed by project management experts that "insufficient - or nonexistent - resource investments in a project are another warning sign that you should beware of (because) projects without budgets, people, or equipment are risky from the outset" (Williams, 2008), and the fact that governmental oversight failed to identify Solyndra as a poor investment during the planning phase points to unsophisticated and inexperienced project managers being permitted to make crucial choices.
Private developers have long decried the federal government's insistence that urban planning techniques be based on environmental factors such as the presence of threatened or endangered species, resulting destruction of fragile ecosystems, and potential infringement on preserved parcels of land. While a seasoned project manager would readily identify these variables as risk factors during the risk management phase, the inability of concerned parties to remain objective often results in these risk factors being willfully ignored in favor of pursuing greater profit margins. Seasoned project managers know firsthand that "when risk management is effective, it results in fewer problems, and for the few problems that exist, it results in more expeditious resolutions" (Schwalbe, 2011), and with many of the sustainable building projects launched during the President's first term languishing amidst regulatory delays, it is clear that a thorough period of independent risk management was never conducted. Instead, the role of risk management was left to the very real estate conglomerates and corporate developers seeking to relax federal legislation restricting unchecked commercial construction, who often cite their reliance on sophisticated computer modeling programs, ostensibly asserting that objective scientific analysis supports their contention that development will result in minimal impact to the surrounding environment. While these predictive programs may be useful from the perspective of private developers, the governmental agencies tasked with guiding the Obama administration's sustainable energy initiative should have made a strategic investment in project management to ensure the independence and impartiality of their findings.
In order to emphasize the importance of legitimate risk management during the planning phase of any complex project, it is informative to analyze the empirical studies produced by unaffiliated parties with no vested interest in the project itself. Urban design and planning professor Paul Waddell conducted a study in 2002 designed to assess the efficacy of the most widely used urban planning models, through a rigorous comparison of these models to the UrbanSim model developed by himself and his colleagues. Waddell's findings, published within an article entitled Modeling Urban Development for Land Use, Transportation and Environmental Planning, take governmental recognition of "the effects of transportation on land use and the environment" into account, as well as "the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) which mandated that metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) integrate metropolitan land use and transportation planning" (2002). After comparing the complex set of parameters used to determine the growth planning of many major American cities to the more environmentally mindful parameters of the UrbanSim system, Waddell concluded that governmentally created analytical tools are typically unable to keep pace with those developed by private firms. He attributes this phenomenon to an increasingly hostile political arena which dictates that policy decisions are not made with expediency, asserting in his concluding remarks that "the challenge of balancing multiple objectives and agendas within urban areas in the U.S. And abroad have grown increasingly intractable politically, and this work represents a small effort to contribute to more deliberative and informed metropolitan governance" (Waddell, 2002). The work performed by Waddell and his colleagues demonstrates the relative simplicity of assessing and managing a project's risk factors, when objectivity is ensured, and this discrepancy suggests a conscious choice on the part of government agencies more interested in fast-tracking preferable projects than vetting them for inherent risks.
While containing the sprawling growth of industrialized metropolitan centers is an important aspect of modern urban planning, the continued investments being made to revitalize underdeveloped areas throughout regions like Southern Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan present a prime opportunity for policymakers to learn from the mistakes of the past. To that end, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme issued a comprehensive report entitled Planning Sustainable Cities: Global Report on Human Settlements 2009 which sought to provide clear guidelines for the sustainable development of emerging population centers around the globe. For the project managers charged with guiding the administration's sustainable energy initiative, reports such as this represent invaluable resources in the effort to define and control the project's scope and size. It is widely known among the project management profession that "good scope definition is very important to project success because it helps improve the accuracy of time, cost, and resource estimates, it defines a baseline for performance measurement and project control, and it aids in communicating clear work responsibilities" (Schwalbe, 2011). With the specter of Solyndra and similarly failed enterprises continuing to impede the President's efforts to reinvigorate his sustainable energy program, it is quite evident that the administration's project managers failed in their duty to define and control their project's scope. The UN report consistently advocates a combination of governmentally administered regulations and community-based cooperation with citizens and property owners, and ultimately finds that "recent experience has also demonstrated the effectiveness of combining such a regulatory approach with partnerships between government, industry and communities in the development and implementation of local sustainability innovations and enterprises" (Tibaijuka, 2009). The author of the study, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, states in her concluding remarks that "the central argument in this report is that planning systems in many parts of the world are not up to the task of dealing with the major urban challenges of the 21st century, and need to be revisited" (2009), and according to Tibaijuka this is a process best facilitated by appropriate levels of government intervention.
Rather than rely on a patchwork of municipal statutes, local land use laws, and federal directives, each of which may be contradictory or counterintuitive to one another, the UN report also advises an inclusive network of recognized urban development practices be instituted and adhered to. The fact that "many green innovations can, and should, be comprehensively integrated into statutory urban planning and development control systems, including planning standards and building regulations" (Tibaijuka, 2009), presents public policymakers with several avenues through which sustainability can be efficiently and…[continue]
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