Taxing the Taxpayers: An Empirical Investigation of the Drivers of Baseline Changes in U.S. Federal Government Technology Programs
Manufacturing & Service Operations Management (Forthcoming)
40 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2020
Date Written: July 13, 2020
(1) Problem Definition: The U.S. federal government makes significant investments in technology programs to deliver essential services to the public. The execution of a program is monitored against a baseline—an aggregate plan representing the program’s planned budget, schedule and scope. Recent reports suggest that federal technology programs are re-baselined multiple times, resulting in significant additional spending of taxpayer money. Although a program’s scope has often been considered a driver of baseline changes, we have a limited understanding of the execution factors that may affect this relationship.
(2) Academic/Practical Relevance: With increasing bipartisan congressional scrutiny of federal spending in technology programs and continuing debate in the media about their execution, a nuanced understanding of the drivers of baseline changes in federal technology programs is an important and contemporary line of inquiry relevant to both policymakers and managers alike. In conducting this inquiry, our study also responds to recent calls in the operations management literature for research on public sector operations.
(3) Methodology: We collected detailed archival data from the federal IT Dashboard, a website maintained by the U.S. federal government to monitor the performance of its technology programs. Based on a sample of 240 federal technology programs across 24 federal agencies, we test four hypotheses on the inter-relationships between the scope, granularity, management competency, execution methodology of federal technology programs and baseline changes in the programs by estimating a negative binomial regression specification that accounts for agency fixed effects and a number of program-specific characteristics.
(4) Results: The results indicate that program scope (i.e., the total planned number of projects in a program) is positively associated with the number of baseline changes. However, increasing levels of program granularity (i.e., the total planned number of activities associated with the projects in a program) and program management competency (i.e., the average program management competency level of all managers in a program) attenuate this positive relationship. Additional econometric analysis highlights the significant savings in taxpayer contributions that can occur by reducing baseline changes in programs of greater scope through an increase in the levels of program granularity and program management competency. Together, these results advance the literature on public sector operations by contributing to a nuanced understanding of the execution factors that influence costly baseline changes in federal technology programs, thereby helping in improved utilization of taxpayer contributions associated with such programs.
(5) Managerial Implications: The study results emphasize the need for federal agencies to invest greater efforts in granularizing a program and in identifying managers with high levels of program management competency when program scope is high, as such efforts can translate into a reduction in the number of baseline changes. Our study results also highlight the role of number of baseline changes as a valuable in-process metric for program managers and federal agencies to monitor the execution of federal technology programs and identify programs that have greater potential for experiencing cost overruns.
Keywords: Public Sector Operations, Program Management, Project Management, Federal Government
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