The capital of Texas is one of the nation’s great cities, well known as a center of music and culture. Austin has grown dramatically over the last couple of decades, ranking as the third-fastest-growing large city from 2000 to 2006, before assuming its current position as the nation’s 11th largest city.

That kind of rapid expansion leads to growing pains.

“We were undertaking a lot of large projects without any real training or standard procedures,” says Project Manager David Smythe-Macaulay. “Given the extremely complicated procurement procedures mandated by the state and city, it was all too easy to unwittingly fall afoul of the law. We wouldn’t even know we’d done so until late in the process.”

In the early 2000s, the public works department began aggressively pushing consistent standards across all city departments and creating a comprehensive procedures manual with standardized forms. Ultimately, responsibility for executing all projects worth more than $400,000 was consolidated into a single office with roughly 50 employees. The Project Management Division ensures standards, procedures, laws, and ordinances are consistently applied by conducting an academy for 19 sponsoring departments.

Given the detailed procedures manual, formal education, and how long public works has worked to streamline the function, Austin has one of most advanced project management offices (PMO) nationwide.

Smythe-Macaulay, a Project Management Institute-certified Project Management Professional (PMP), will be the first to say that not everyone is happy with the division’s rigorous approach. But real gains have been made. Austin’s experience is useful for any agency feeling overwhelmed by the complex legal and procedural complexities that are a reality of building public facilities.

The problem: accountability without authority

Public works centralized project management in 2003 to meet the following goals:

  • establish consistent procedures;
  • compensate staff fairly;
  • reduce change orders;
  • increase accountability.

A new division of about 50 employees drawn from various departments, including water utility, watershed, street and drainage, was formed. They may have held the title of engineer or architect in their previous department, but all functioned as project managers and all had developed their own methods for getting large projects built. Now they all held the title of “project manager” and were being asked to apply a uniform set of procedures to all projects regardless of departmental sponsor.

The reorganization was not an immediate success.

Smythe-Macaulay and Assistant Director for Engineering and Capital Project Delivery Keri Burchard-Juarez, P.E., PMP, discussed the sources of dissatisfaction in a 2010 American Public Works Association presentation:

  • Redundancy. Project leaders in sponsoring departments felt there was substantial overlap between their roles and those of the new project managers, creating resentment and raising concerns about extra costs.
  • Confusion. With some sponsor departments remaining highly involved in managing projects, the role of the new project managers differed depending on the project and the sponsor.
  • Inconsistency. A procedures manual written in 1996 was out of date and no real training was being done. Consequently, the new project managers had no incentive to change methods that had been working for them.

Project management had been centralized, but the new division’s authority and accountability were relatively vague and weak. Sponsoring departments still had a great deal of influence over procurement and contract administration, and the city’s top executives weren’t fully committed to the new entity. As a result, the new project managers felt that they’d been given accountability without authority. The lack of formal training and consistent, well-documented procedures was also a serious problem.

To get the initiative back on track, a Project Management Task Force led by the city manager’s office was created that included top managers from the city’s water and drainage utilities as well as public works. The presence of high-level executives gave the task force much-needed credibility and the ability to implement necessary changes.

The task force began by clearly defining the roles of the project manager, the sponsoring department, and design consultants; and by firmly establishing the project manager’s authority. This immediately improved the day-to-day effectiveness of the new project managers, and largely eliminated the perceptions of redundancy and waste that had plagued the division.

The task force then implemented longer-term strategies intended to raise quality of service. There was a renewed focus on written procedures in the form of a manual; formal training in procedures began at this time. “One boundary that was clearly set was that the manual maintained by public works would apply across the board,” says Contract Development Analyst Margot Massey.

A system of ongoing focus groups, drawn from various stakeholders, was initiated. Consultant contracts were reviewed and revised to bring them in line with the division’s new approach. The division also began conducting annual customer service surveys to get additional feedback.

The task force’s intervention was successful. Project management has been successfully centralized in a single department, and the role of project managers is clearly defined. Procedures are applied consistently; and communication between project managers, sponsors, and consultants is clearly defined. Perhaps most importantly, Austin’s top executives clearly support the new division.