Program management: let's straighten out our terminology

What's a program? What's program management? Differences in how we use these words matter, argues UNSW Canberra's Dr Raymond Young - and the project management discipline needs to adapt its language use if it wants to help government deliver better results.

The Shergold Report (an independent review of Government processes for the development and implementation of large public programs and projects) recommends we improve our project and program management capabilities because there are systemic deficiencies in the way we implement policy. The project management community is responding to this call to action, and CEOs of the professional bodies are contacting the office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and other champions for change. However, there is a problem of language.

Program management means different things to the project management community and the public sector. The project management understanding is evolving, but sometimes the community does itself a disservice by pitching program management as a particular methodology such as Managing Successful Programmes (MSP™). In contrast the public sector understands a program as an intervention in a defined population that is ideally linked to a strategic policy goal. Who is right and does it matter?

It matters because program management done right will lead to the realisation of policy goals. Currently we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on projects and programs over decades with minimal improvement in policy goals. Literacy is not improving, numeracy is actually decreasing, hospital waiting lists are getting longer and traffic congestion is getting worse. Program management can reverse this situation and directly improve our quality of life!

However, some research I did with Gemma Carey and Alireza Abbasi suggests the starting point for discussion should be the public sector – rather than the project management – understanding. A bibliographic analysis of the word ‘program/programme’ shows it is used much more frequently in the health disciplines than in the project management literature (where it is included as a subset of the engineering or business disciplines) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relative proportion of the use of the term 'programme' by discipline in Scopus

Figure 1: Relative proportion of the use of the term 'programme' by discipline in Scopus

The term ‘program’ was used earlier and is used more frequently than the term ‘project’ and the usage of the term ‘program management’ is almost insignificant in comparison (Figure 2). The health rather than the project management understanding has dominated usage over time. The project and program management literature has developed independently of management and other mainstream disciplines and the impact of the project management profession is being limited because it does not communicate in meaningful ways with other disciplines.

Figure 2: Comparison of usage of terms over time

Figure 2: Comparison of usage of terms over time

My co-authors and I suggest that the public sector could learn a lot from project managers, but it will be necessary for project managers to exercise a bit of humility and adopt the public sector understanding of program management. It is too much to expect the public sector to change the way they use the word program, so the project management community is going to have to work out how their experience can help public sector managers to realise their strategic policy goals. One thing we know is that it is not all about time and budget, and it is not the naïve adoption of one methodology [like MSP™].


Based on: Young, R.C., Carey, G., Abbasi, A., (2017). Program management: evidence and resolution of a major communication barrier between project management and other disciplines. Paper presented to the 13th International Research Network on Organizing by Projects, Boston, June 11-14.